Well now if you would take your Bibles in hand and turn with me once again to the book of Romans as we continue our study in perhaps what may be, at least for many of us, the most precious chapter in the whole Bible. We’re considering Romans chapter 8 in these weeks, and last time we were looking at verses 3 and 4 where Paul expands on the theme of our liberty, our liberation from the dominion of sin that has come to us as we trust in Jesus. He showed us, remember, that the triune God has worked in us and for us that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us. The Father has sent His Son and condemned sin in the flesh when He condemned Christ at the cross. The Son came in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering for us and now we who believe in Jesus are enabled to walk according to the Spirit. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – all three persons at work for our sanctification. It’s glorious. That was last week.
This week, in verses 5 through 8 where our attention will fall, Paul is unpacking the basic contrast with which he has been working – the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit. He wants to make particularly clear that the whole world falls into one of these two categories. Either we live according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. No condemnation. Spiritual liberation from the bondage of sin. This only comes to those who are not according to the flesh but who are according to the Spirit. And so everything hinges on which is true of us. Are we according to the flesh or are we according to the Spirit? And we’re simply going to think about each of these two categories of human beings in turn in just a few moments.
Before we do that, we need to read the text, and before we do that – as is our custom – we’re going to pause once again and cry to God and ask that He would help us to hear His holy Word in true faith with receptive hearts. So would you pray with me? Let’s pray.
O our Father, we pray that the Spirit of whom we will be speaking as we study Your Word this morning, that He might come now and work mightily in the hearts of all who watch or listen to this message. Indeed, may there be some, many, who through the preaching of the Word today, pass from death to life, from being according to the flesh to being according to the Spirit. O God, would You do that by Your Word and for the glory of the name of Jesus, in whose name we now pray. Amen.
Romans chapter 8. Let’s read from the first verse. This is the Word of God:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 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 set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.
Let me start with a proposition. You may find it a little blunt perhaps, but I think it is nevertheless quite true. Here it is. One of the most dangerous errors we could ever make is thinking that there is a middle way between open unbelief and a Spirit filled life. Hell is filled with people who comforted themselves in life with the thought that they were “quite Christian enough, thank you very much.” They thought there was some course to be steered, you see, between rejecting Christ outright and living the whole of our lives in utter reliance on Him and for His glory. They think there’s some convenient, moderate, in between place where they can comfortably live. They wish to have just enough Jesus to solve their consciences and get them through the door of heaven when their time comes, but not so much Jesus that He actually interferes with their daily lives and their routines and their priorities and their decisions.
Let me suggest to you that that actually may be the most common, effective, even the deadliest lie Satan has ever spread in the Church of Jesus Christ. In my judgment, the idea among those who claim to be Christians that there is some middle course, some tertium quid, between a truly spiritual life and an openly irreligious one, that may be the single greatest hindrance to the advance of the Gospel in the United States today. And what’s needed most urgently then is a recovery – not just in our heads, but in our experience – of the Pauline vision outlined for us in Romans 8 verses 5 through 8; our passage this morning. James Montgomery Boice said of these verses, Romans 8:5-8, “In my opinion, they are the most important of all if we consider them from the perspective of the weakness and need of the Church at the present time. This is because they correct a mistaken but very popular misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian. The mistaken view divides people into three classes. One, those who are not Christian. Two, those who are Christians. And three, those who are Christians but who are living in an unsaved manner. This conclusion,” he says, “is fatal because it encourages us to suppose that we can be careless about Christianity, doing little and achieving nothing, and yet go to heaven securely when we die.”
But the apostle Paul, as we’re going to see, insists that there are not three but two, and only two, groups of people in the world. And he sets out in verses 5 through 8 to characterize them for us. And all we’re going to do, as I said a moment ago, is look at each set of characteristics in turn and try and see some of the implications of his teaching for us, especially if we think we can find our own middle course between them. And as we do this now, I want to plead with you to be scrutinizing your heart in the light of the Word of God.
Those Who Live According to the Flesh
With that said, let’s look together at verse 5 and the first group, the first category of human being that Paul describes for us. There are those, he says, “who live according to the flesh.” The Greek of verse 5 is actually a little more direct than that. The word “live” is not found in the original; it’s supplied by our English translation. Paul simply says those “who are according to the flesh.” In other words, he does not have in mind here a set of mere behaviors, a way of living that might be substituted for any other. It’s not just a lifestyle choice that he’s talking about when he talks about living according to the flesh. He’s talking about something even more basic than that. He’s saying there are those “who are according to the flesh;” the flesh is the defining mark, the ruling principle, the dominant characteristic shaping them at the deepest level. Remember, we said this last time, the flesh is Paul’s theological shorthand for human nature dominated and governed by sin. That’s what defines this group, he says. They are according to the flesh, dominated and governed by the power of sin dwelling in their fallen natures inherited from Adam.
And look at what Paul says about them in verse 5. Those who live according to the flesh, who are according to the flesh, he says they “set their minds on the things of the flesh.” Now let’s be clear. When Paul talks here about the mind, he does not merely intend our intellects and our rationality. The language he uses includes the affections and the will. In other words, he’s really talking about the whole interior self; the “you” at the heart of who you are. So he’s not saying that fleshly people are always thinking consciously about fleshly things. That may be true, but he’s saying something even more far reaching than that. He’s saying the deepest layers of motivation and inclination, back even behind their conscious thoughts, are nevertheless set upon the things of the flesh. They’re stuck on it.
I was in high school at the end of the age of vinyl. You know, when you would go to the music store and you would buy a vinyl record, and if that record got scratched when you played it, the music just sort of stuck there. Right? You’d hear the same broken syllable repeating over and over and over and over – just like that. And there was nothing you could do about it. If the record was scratched, that was that! It would never play properly again. That’s what Paul is saying about the frame and orientation of the person who is according to the flesh. They are stuck like a broken record on the same things, the same values, the same priorities. Their minds, their whole inner selves, are set on the things of the flesh.
And by the way, that’s another important phrase that we need to understand before we can move on – “the things of the flesh.” What is it that occupies and governs our deepest selves if we are “of the flesh,” “according to the flesh”? Galatians 5:16-24 is actually closely parallel in many respects to this passage. Paul is working, if you look there, with the same contrast between flesh and Spirit that we find here in Romans 8. And in verse 19 of Galatians 5, he even uses very similar language to the language used here that I think helps us understand what he is telling us in Romans 8 by “the things of the flesh.” He talks in Galatians about “the works of the flesh” and he says the works of the flesh are evident – “Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these I warn you as I warned you before that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So do you see the picture Paul is painting of the person who is according to the flesh? It’s a person thoroughly dominated, controlled by the things of the flesh, by the works of the flesh, by the sinful nature with all its various motions and actions at the deepest level of their psyche.
And verse 6 even explains some of the implications of that. Look at verse 6 with me please. The one who is according to the flesh has “set their minds on the things of the flesh.” And what’s more, verse 6, to set the mind on the flesh is – what? To set the mind on the flesh is death, he says. Now again, if we’re going to understand Paul’s point we need to attend carefully to what’s actually being said here. It’s not just that the mind set on the flesh leads to, results in, death. That’s true enough, isn’t it? Sin kills and it kills eternally unless it is dealt with. But that’s not what Paul is saying here. He’s not talking about the consequences of sin on down the line when we come to stand before God so much as he is describing the state or condition of a life dominated by the power of sin right here and now. The mind set on the flesh is death. This is what spiritual death is. It is a mind set on the flesh, governed by, ruled by the flesh, living for the things of the flesh. Paul is saying if you’re not a Christian today, you are enduring a kind of living death. You are dead in your sin.
That’s stark language, isn’t it? It’s not moderate and measured. It’s not polite or politic. It’s a little gauche; a little intemperate perhaps. Paul’s clearly not from Jackson, Mississippi, is he? But however uncomfortable his language here might make us, there’s no exaggeration involved. It’s not hyperbole that Paul is using. This is the teaching of Scripture concerning those who do not entrust themselves wholly to Jesus Christ for salvation. They’re not just sick, you see. You’re not just confused and need more information if you’re not a believer. It’s not a little warm encouragement that you need most. A fair chance, an even playing field will make no difference to your spiritual and eternal condition. You are spiritually dead, Paul says. He makes the same point, famously remember, in Ephesians 2:1 – “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the world.” That’s your predicament. If you’ve not yet come to Jesus Christ in faith, you are dead in your sin. To set the mind on the flesh is death; you’re dead.
Spiritual Death Involves Hostility to God
And if you look at verses 7 and 8, Paul lays out for us what that involves, this living death. To exist in a state of spiritual death means three things. In verses 7 and 8 it means hostility, responsibility and inability. Hostility, responsibility and inability. First, it means hostility to God. Do you see that phrase in verse 7? The mind that is set on the flesh is – what? It is hostile to God. The spiritually dead are wholly averse to God. They exist in opposition to Him. They are at war with Him. There is enmity between God and the non-Christian.
Now as I say that, you may find yourself arguing with me. “I may not be a Christian but I’m not hostile to Christ. That’s going a little far. I’m not opposed to God. I think about God the way I think about broccoli – it’s not bad; I just don’t care for it!” Well okay, let’s test that out a little bit. You didn’t ask to be born into your family, right? You didn’t choose your parents. But in most households, the simple fact that you have been born into that family with these parents places some natural obligations upon you to love them and to honor them. But were someone to say of their family, “Well, I may not love my parents but I’m not hostile to them. I’m not opposed to them. I just don’t particularly care to listen to them, honor them, or be around them” – wouldn’t you be shocked at an attitude like that? That’s not a neutral stance to adopt toward one’s parents. Is it? We’d all agree, I think, that something terrible has happened in a family like that. We’d consider that situation to be an open wound that ought to be healed. Any child who spoke like that of their parents is not adopting a neutral stance. They’re giving voice, actually, to opposition, to enmity, to alienation.
Now God has made us in His image for fellowship with Him. He’s made us to be His children and He loves us. He’s made an offer of salvation to all of us in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. But to say in the face of God’s love, “Look, I’m not opposed to You. I just don’t really want to hear from You or talk to You or follow Your Word or submit to Your rules or really generally have You involved in my life at any level.” To speak like that is not to adopt a position of reasonable neutrality. It’s to take a stance of open hostility. Spiritual death involves hostility to God. If you’re not a Christian, you are an enemy of God and that is a terrible position to be in. Hostility.
Spiritual Death Involves Moral Responsibility Before God
Secondly, spiritual death involves moral responsibility before God. We’re living in rebellion against Him. Look at verse 7 again. “The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law.” The evidence of our hostility to God is our refusal to submit to His holy law. That’s the truth about our hearts by nature. Isn’t it? Can we be honest about that for a moment? Deep down, we don’t want God to rule over us. We don’t want anyone to rule over us. We want to be in charge. Spiritual death means hostility to God, but it also means moral responsibility before God because we refuse to submit to His law. We are law breakers, which means we are guilty in His sight. And now our danger has grown considerably. Hasn’t it?
Spiritual Death Involves Total Inability
Spiritual death involves hostility, it involves responsibility, and then thirdly notice Paul says spiritual death involves total inability. Total inability. Look at the end of verse 7 and at verse 8. The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Now here are the real depths of our spiritual predicament today if we’re not Christians. Can you see them? We are opposed to God, and so we’re guilty before God, but worst of all we are utterly powerless to alter our condition under His judgment. That’s what spiritual death involves – total inability. When the flesh rules your life, there is no way for you to fix your problem. There’s no technique to try, there’s no words to say, there’s no formula to use. There’s no amount of amending your ways, no sum of money to donate, no prayers you can pray. Nothing that you can cause to alter your own condition. You are dead in trespasses and sins.
So look, let’s give up any notion of a neutral space between genuinely spiritual Christians and open hostility to Christ. There is no fence for you to sit on. Either you are born again or you are dead and guilty and opposed to God and there is no way for you to alter your condition, however much you might put a polite or maybe even a religious veneer on it, you are dead in your sins still. And we need to feel the force of that. As uncomfortable as it is, frankly, I want you to be uncomfortable. I want to alarm you and to shake you from moral indifference before God. If you’re not spiritually alive, awake to the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, if you’re not “walking in the Spirit,” as Paul puts it, then you’re in really big trouble and there’s nothing you can do to remedy it. So you ought to be alarmed. It’s a horrifying thought that you could face these truths and shrug them off with indifference.
Those Who Live According to the Spirit
But there is another type of human being in the world, isn’t there? Not just those who are in the flesh. Come back with me to verse 5. In contrast to those who are according to the flesh, there are those who are according to the Spirit. And again, notice it’s not just that they live according to the Spirit but they are themselves according to the Spirit. Their very selves have come to be dominated, remade by the Spirit. To use the language of Jesus from John 3, they have been “born of the Spirit, born from above, born again.” They were dead, but God the Holy Spirit has made them alive together with Christ and now they are a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come! A radical, fundamental renewal has taken place at the deepest level of their lives. And so now, naturally, those who are according to the Spirit – notice Paul’s language – they set their minds; their whole interior life is now oriented toward, taken up with, governed by, stuck on the things of the Spirit.
“The things of the Spirit” there really is another way of talking about the whole Christian life Biblically defined. It means the fruit of the Spirit in contrast to the works of the flesh from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control. It involves the outward and ordinary means the Spirit will deploy in your life to work these graces into you – the Word and the sacraments and prayer. It involves the community of the Spirit, the fellowship of believers for our mutual encouragement in the life of the local church. The whole Christian life is summed up in the phrase, “the things of the Spirit,” and that’s what, Paul says, comes to dominate our mindset, our outlook, our values. We come to love the things of God and the people of God and the Word of God and the law of God and the cause of God and the kingdom of God and the Church of God. We want the Spirit to guide us and equip us and sanctify us and sustain us and make use of us and help us to pray and teach us the truth and point us to Christ and then make us like Him. And we want Him to do it more and more, day after day.
And when that begins to happen, when instead of death the Holy Spirit breaks into your life, Paul says it is life and peace. Instead of being dead, you come to life. Instead of being hostile to God, alienated from Him, guilty before Him, you enter a condition of being at peace with Him. The Holy Spirit settles you into a new position under God. He’s no longer your enemy. You are now His child, reconciled to Him, enrolled into His family, and enabled more and more to please Him. If you are according to the Spirit, if today you are a believer in Jesus, you please God. He is pleased with you and by you. You, as it were, you put a smile on Abba Father’s face.
Now, step back for a minute. Do you see the far reaching implications of our text? These are the only two classes of people in the world. Right? Do you see them? Not the rich and the poor, not the haves and the have nots, not the powerful and the disenfranchised, not the elite and the working class, not the privileged and the marginal. These are distinctions that have their places in our common society, but when it comes to eternal things, there are only two categories that matter – the fleshly dead and the spiritually alive; those ruled by the flesh and those dominated by the life giving Holy Spirit. Those at enmity against God, hostile to Him, and those who have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The mind set on the flesh is death; the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.
Have You Been Born Again?
The whole world is described in these two categories, every single human being. There is no third way, which means, of course, that you and I, we fit into one of these two groups, don’t we? So which is it? Which are you? Or to put the question the way Jesus put the question, let me ask you directly, “Have you been born again?” Have you been born of the Spirit, born from above? Have you been telling yourself, “You can be a Christian just fine, but let’s not take it too seriously, you know. Let’s not get too involved. No need to let it run your life.” Have you been telling yourself that? If you have, I need to tell you quite solemnly there is a chance, a real chance that you are still unconverted, dead in your sin, self-deceived and in grave spiritual danger because there is no middle ground, you see. There is no neutral space between spiritual mindedness and being an unbeliever. You are one or the other, and the difference between them, the vital distinction is the new birth.
So let me ask you again, “Have you been born again? Has God broken into your life by the Holy Spirit and made you new?” The mark of the new birth, remember, is a mind set on the things of the Spirit which is life and peace. The mark of spiritual death, even when we coat it in a nice, shiny, clean veneer of religion, the mark of spiritual death is the mind set on the flesh. What kind of mind do you have?
Repent and Believe the Gospel
Well suppose these verses do alarm you and you fear you are in fact spiritually dead after all, still in your sin. What should you do then? Since you are spiritually dead and you can’t make yourself alive, what should you do? Here’s what you should do. You should repent and believe the Gospel, right now. You should cry to God for mercy from the hands of Jesus Christ. You should remember that God invites all people everywhere, He invites you to turn from your sin and to trust in His Son for rescue. And you should, without any more delay or any other thought intruding, with a singleness of mind and purpose right now, you should come to Jesus and ask Him for new life. Ask Him for a clean heart. Ask Him for the forgiveness of your sin.
Those Whom the Spirit Makes Alive Do Come to Christ
“But pastor, you said there’s nothing I can do to change my situation. How can I go to Christ if I am spiritually dead? You’re asking me to do what you’ve just told me the Bible says I cannot do!” But that’s actually not how the Scriptures speak. The Scriptures affirm, as we’ve just seen, that if you’re not a Christian you are indeed dead and you cannot save yourself. You cannot save yourself, but the Lord Jesus Christ is ready to save you! You can’t please God. That’s the plain teaching of the Word of God. You cannot alter your condition, but these very same Scriptures also affirm that everyone that God does make alive they do not wait for something to happen to them first before they come immediately to Christ. They don’t delay in the hopes of some experience to overtake them before they take God’s offer seriously and trust themselves to Jesus. Those whom the Spirit makes alive do come, every one of them. They hear the voice of Christ in the Gospel speaking to them as though they were the only person in all the world and they answer Him. Like Lazarus dead in his tomb, when they hear His voice they come forth alive! In obedience to Him, they come out to Him!
Isaiah says, “Come all who are thirsty; come, buy and eat, without money and without price.” Jesus says, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Revelation says, “Come, anyone who wills let them come and drink of the water of life.” So what should you do? You should come to the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting Jesus, only Jesus. To refuse or to delay or to excuse, that’s still only disobedience. No, you should plead for new life from Him. You should confess your spiritual death, your heart rebellion, your inability to change before Him. You should cast yourself completely, unqualifiedly upon Jesus, on His obedience for sinners, on His bloodshed at the cross for sinners to satisfy the wrath of God against sinners. You don’t need any work of your own. You don’t need fine words; you don’t need anything. You only need Jesus. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit actually to bring you to Him.
Look, so there is no middle ground. There’s no halfway position. Either you are according to the flesh, dead, or you are according to the Spirit, alive and at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Which is true of you today? If you are dead, there is only one way to come to life and that is from the hands, the nail-pierced hands of the Lord Jesus Himself. Go to Him. Go to Him. Do it now. Flee to Him. Run to Him. Cry to Him. He loves to save all who come to Him. Let’s pray together.
Lord Jesus, we pray for those who have been watching, listening, and we ask that You would alarm the unconcerned, awaken the spiritually slumbering, summon the dead to life like Lazarus from their tombs. Give the Holy Spirit to cause new birth in the hearts of all who listen, for we ask this for Your honor and glory, amen.
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