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The Best Chapter in the Bible (2): Never Mind

Series: The Best Chapter in the Bible

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jun 14, 2009

Romans 8:5-8

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The Lord's Day Morning

June 14, 2009

Romans 8:5-8

The Best Chapter in the Bible (2):
“Never Mind”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

“O come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord, our maker, for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care.” Let us worship Him.

Our Lord and our God, we come into Your presence and we declare by the grace of Your Holy Spirit that You are the one true God, and our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. And so we praise You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for You are not only the creator of this world, You are the author of our salvation. We come to You only in Jesus' name. We dare not trust the sweetest frame, but we only cling to Jesus' name. On Christ, the solid rock, we stand; all other ground is sinking sand. So we come by the cross. We know that we don't deserve to be Your children. We know that we don't deserve to be acquitted and forgiven and pardoned, but You've done this; and You've done this through the blood, the death of Your own Son, and You've called us to Him. We trust in Him by the gospel, and we come now in His name to worship You, to give to You the glory due Your name. So receive that praise and speak to us, Lord, through Your word. Speak to us as Your word is read; speak to us as Your word is proclaimed; hear our prayers as we pray Your word back to You, and our songs as we sing Your word back to You, and inhabit the praises of Your people. Make the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts to be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Romans 8 as we continue our way through this great chapter in a series that Derek has provocatively entitled “The Best Chapter in the Bible.” Last week we looked at verses 1-4, a passage that simultaneously reminds us about how we are able to grow in grace despite our ongoing battle against indwelling sin, and it points us to the basis of our security and our assurance of salvation in God's declaration of free justification in Jesus Christ.

Now if you would look at this whole chapter, I want to walk across the chapter with you for a few moments so that you can see how many encouragements the Apostle Paul has in store for you, and I think you’ll understand why Derek chose this chapter for our summer study.

In the passage we're looking at today and in a couple of verses following it, we’ll see an emphasis on how you can tell the difference between godliness and worldliness. (And I’ll explain why a little bit later today.) This is something that Paul addresses in the midst of a chapter which on the whole is positive and comforting and encouraging. Why this section in which we go about discriminating between those who are godly and those who are worldly, or giving us instruments whereby we can discriminate in ourselves — whether our hearts are set on godliness or worldliness? Why would Paul speak about that? I’ll try and address that today in the message.

But then, if you look at verses 12-17, you’ll see an emphasis on how the Holy Spirit shows us that we are the children of God. There is a real sense in which the whole of Romans 6, 7 and 8 is focused on how grace reigns in righteousness. In other words, how does the grace of God work in the lives of believers? And Paul is exploring that in each of those three chapters, and especially in chapter 8 he is focusing on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and he's reminding us how absolutely essential the Holy Spirit is to our living of the Christian life. And in verses 12-17, he’ll emphasize that it's the Spirit who shows us that we are the children of God.

Then if you look at verses 18-25, he will explain to you how your present sufferings serve your future glory. Now that's something worth knowing about and hearing about, I think. And that's yet another reason why Derek thought this would be such a good chapter to work through this summer.

Then if you look at verses 26-27, Paul teaches you how the Holy Spirit intercedes for you. Now, you know that you’re supposed to intercede and you know that Jesus is interceding for you at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Did you know that the Holy Spirit intercedes for you? He does, and Paul will explain how and why in these two verses.

Then if you look at verses 28-30, you learn how you can be certain that God's promises will be fulfilled to you.

In verses 31-32, Paul tells you how much God is for you. In verses 33-34, Paul explains to you how secure you are in God's justification. And, in verses 35-39, Paul explains how you can be more than a conqueror, even if you feel like a sheep being led to slaughter.

Now all of those things are obviously very relevant for the living of the Christian life in a world filled with many dangers, toils, and snares, and this is one reason why Derek chose this passage to work through this summer.

We’re looking today at verses 5-8. Look at those verses with me and let me just outline them for you, because this passage is a passage about discrimination — about distinguishing between two things, and in this case it's distinguishing between two ways of life that indicate two states of heart.

Why would that be important for Paul to do? Because Paul wants you to understand who all these comforts are for in Romans 8, because these comforts are not for everybody. These comforts are for those who are trusting in Christ. These comforts are for those who have been born again. These comforts are for those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. To use Paul's language in Romans 8:5, these comforts are for those who are “walking after the Spirit…who are living according to the Spirit.” And so it's very important for us to distinguish between whether we're walking after the flesh or walking after the Spirit, because that will change the way that we approach and appropriate this passage. It's not that this passage doesn't speak to you if you’re walking after the flesh: it's just that it speaks to you in a different way than it speaks to those who are trusting in Christ, those who know the Lord Jesus Christ savingly in the gospel. And so Paul is concerned to help us understand how we can know that distinction, and he does it in four ways in this little passage.

If you look at verse 5, the first thing that he does is he gives you the characteristic of a person who's walking according to the flesh and a person who's walking according to the Spirit. You need to see a parallelism in verse 5 — those who live according to the flesh — those who live according to the Spirit. And so he's helping you distinguish between those two because so often people look the same on the outside. You can have irreligious people (people that never darken the door of the church, and yet they’re kind and nice and they do good things) and very often they can look just like people who say that they trust God and say that they believe in the gospel, and say that they embrace Jesus Christ as He's offered in the gospel. So how do you tell the difference between someone who's walking according to the flesh and walking according to the Spirit? Paul begins to unpack that in verse 5.

Then in verse 6, Paul points you to the consequence of either walking according to the flesh or walking according to the Spirit. He tells you this is invariably the consequence of a life which walks according to the flesh and a life which walks according to the Spirit.

Then if you look at verse 7, he then zeroes in simply on those who are walking according to the flesh and he gives this diagnosis. He says here is the root cause of the condemnation which he has announced for those who walk according to the flesh in verse 6…the root cause is announced in verse 7. And then he gives a “can't” in verse 8. Again, he's only speaking of those who walk according to the flesh, and he tells you something that they can't do…something that they are absolutely incapable of doing, and it's that “can't” that makes the gospel absolutely necessary for the salvation of anyone who is captured by the flesh. And so we get to hear the gospel even in this “can't.”

So, in verse 5 you get the characteristic; in verse 6 you get the consequence; in verse 7 you get the root cause of the condemnation of those who are walking according to the flesh, and then in verse 8 you get a “can't”–something that those who are walking according to the flesh can't do.

Well, let's pray before we read and hear God's word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. It is a savor of life to those who believe in Jesus Christ, but it is offensive and a savor of death to those who are dying. Lord, I pray that even today You would awaken to new life those who are dead in trespasses and sins. By Your word, by Your Spirit do this today as the word is read. And I pray that You would strengthen and encourage those who are alive by the Holy Spirit and who walk with Him. This I ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God in Romans 8, beginning in verse 5:

“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 thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

From God's perspective (and in the end that's the only perspective that matters), there are fundamental differences between those who are in Christ and those who are not; between those who are in the Spirit and those who are in the flesh; between those who seek first the kingdom and its righteousness and those who do not, but rather who seek their own kingdom; between those who are believers and those who are not; between those who embrace the gospel and those who do not; between those who are alive to God in Jesus Christ and those who are dead in trespasses and sins. There are fundamental differences between those, even though sometimes on the outside we look very, very similar. Many of you know, just like I know, unbelievers…some who never darken the door of the church, some who would be very upfront with you about the fact that they don't believe in God and they don't believe in an afterlife, and they don't believe in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and Jesus as the only way of salvation. Some of you, like me, know people like that who are very, very nice. And intelligent. And kind. They’re giving. They may even give themselves to causes of social justice and well-being that actually make us feel a little ashamed and make us wish that we did more to help others.

And yet the Apostle Paul, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says when it gets down to it there's a fundamental difference between those who in Christ and those who are not.

So here's the $64,000 question: How do you tell the difference? How do you distinguish between those that look good on the outside but aren't in Christ, and those who are in Christ? How do you tell the difference? Well, Paul answers that question here and in the process teaches us much more than that.

I. Characteristics of those who live according to the flesh.

First of all, notice how he characterizes those who are in the flesh and those who are in the Spirit — those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit. You see the parallelism in verse 5:

“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.”

Now that phrase “set their minds on” is a typically pauline phrase, and by mind he means more than just your intellect. He means the whole of who you are in your inmost being. He means the way you think, the things that you would choose (given the opportunity to choose them), the things that you desire, the things that you’re interested in, your ambitions…the inmost core of your heart. That's what he means: that they set their minds on the flesh. There, Paul says, is a fundamentally distinguishing characteristic of those for whom all the comforts that are enumerated in Romans 8 are not theirs. They set their minds on things of the flesh.

Derek often likes to ask us the question, “What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything else?” One reason he likes to ask us this question is it gets you to thinking about what your mind is set on. In your thinking is your thinking set on the things of the Spirit, or is it set on the things of the flesh? What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything else? In your choosing, when it's left up to you and no one or very few other people are going to know what you choose, what do you choose? In your desiring, what are your deepest desires? In your ambitions, what are your ambitions? In your interests, what are your interests? Paul is saying your mind and what it is set on will point you to what you value most. Do you value the things of the Spirit, or do you value the things of the flesh? And so he's giving you a diagnostic whereby we can know the difference between those who are in Christ and those who are not, those who are godly and those who are not. What is their mind set on?

When William Carey, the father of the modern missions movement, chose to leave his trade and go to the mission field — risking his life, throwing away any of the opportunities of advancement in a trade and the wealth and security and comfort that would come with that — an employer of his interviewed him about this to try and find what in the world could possibly be his motivation for doing this. And having heard William Carey explain all of the obstacles and the dangers and the lack of remuneration and earthly benefits that was going to result from his leaving his work in the shoe shop in London and going to the mission field, his employer said, “You’re mad! You are absolutely crazy to do what you’re about to do.”

The reason that that man said that William Carey was mad was because he was in the flesh and he cared more about the flesh than the things…. William Carey cared about things like people going to hell. He cared about sharing the gospel. He cared about people growing in grace, and coming to see their Savior's face. That's what he cared about, but this employer of his had no concern for this.

A friend of mine was a brilliant student at MIT and headed for a very successful (and, very frankly, lucrative) career when he felt a call to gospel ministry. And when he went in to sit down with his supervisor at MIT to tell him that he was leaving MIT and the PhD program to go to seminary, his professor said, “You are out of your mind. You are on a track where you will work for one of the most prestigious companies in the world. You will not only make a lot of money, you will be influential. You will be able to be an influence in your field. You will be prominent. You will have social standing. You are throwing all of that away. Or, if you don't go to the private sector, you can have powerful influence in the government of the United States. Don't throw all this away!” He said this because he was in the flesh. My friend cared about people going to heaven, coming to know Jesus Christ. He felt a call to the ministry, and this uncomprehending man thought that it was of no value whatsoever.

Now that doesn't mean that if you’re in the flesh you’re going to stay in your job and if you’re in the Spirit you’re going to quit your jobs and go to seminary and you’re going to go to the mission field, and you’re going to become preachers. You can stay right in the job that you’re in right now and be in the Spirit and serve the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. But the issue is What do you think is important in life? Paul's giving a diagnostic in verse 5.

II. Consequence of living according to the flesh.

And then he says here's the consequence. If your mind is set on the things of the flesh, here's what's going to happen. Death! God's judgment — death! And here's what is going to happen if your mind is set on the Spirit: life and peace. It's invariable.

Now the irony is here that people whose mind is set on the flesh don't wake up in the morning and say, ‘How can I destroy my life today? Let me see if I can choose something that will ruin my life. Let me see if I can follow a desire that will lead me to destruction.’ (“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end, that way leads to destruction.”) We have a little saying that goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” People who are in the flesh don't wake up in the morning and say, ‘I'd like to ruin my life today,’ but anytime you walk according to the flesh you are destroying yourself. Paul just wants to make that clear, because so often people who are in the flesh think that they are “living the life” and it's these poor people who are in the Spirit who are missing the boat. Paul says it's actually the other way around. If you’re in the flesh (if you’re living according to the flesh, if your mind is set on things of the flesh), you’re killing yourself and you’re setting yourself up for God's final judgment.

It is those, in fact, who set their minds on the things of the Spirit that know life and peace, and in this passage Paul is going to describe Christians undergoing the most excruciating trials, and he's going to say, ‘Christian, in the midst of those trials I've got a word for you: God intends for you to know life and peace not by escaping those trials, but even as you go through them. But for those who are in the flesh, there is no life and peace.’ You know this, don't you? You've had two friends, one of whom was a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and one of whom was not, and the same thing happened to them. And the believer grew, and there was joy and there was peace; and the unbeliever died a little, and virtues disappeared, and bitterness and cynicism crept in. The same thing happened — two different results. Death — life and peace.

III. Why do people live according to the flesh?

Then Paul zeroes in on the root cause. You see it in verse 7. Why is it that those whose minds are set on the flesh…why is it that they die? Why is it that they’re on the road to destruction? Because, he says (verse 7), “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, it does not submit to God's law; it cannot.” Why? Because the mind that is set on the flesh is all about me! I'm God! What I want is what I want. I don't care what God wants. What I think is what I think. I don't care what God thinks. What I choose is what I choose. I don't care what God tells me to choose. It's all about me. The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God.

Now, don't misunderstand me. There are religious people who can have their mind set on the flesh. I remember in a church that I once attended a family joined from what we would call a fundamentalist background. (I'm not using that as a pejorative as it often is used; that's how they would have described themselves.) They went to fundamentalist churches all their lives and they went to a fundamentalist college, and they joined our church because our pastor was a faithful preacher of God's word. But as much as I loved that family, I did notice that they were very judgmental towards other people in the congregation. They were quick to say when they saw other people doing things that they thought were wrong. They were quick to say, “That person is out of accord with God's word.” After being a member of our congregation for many years, the oldest daughter of that family left her husband and her five children after having had an affair with a man, and became married to him.

I was surprised by two things. First of all, she was utterly unrepentant of what she had done. There were absolutely no grounds for what she had done. It was all about her. Nothing that justified her actions and leaving her children to pursue this relationship. The second thing that stunned me was the reaction of the patriarch of the family, because this man whom I'd often seen make judgments about other people not living up to the word reacted violently when the elders of the church patiently and kindly and lovingly, but firmly, began to enter into the process of discipline of his daughter. He was infuriated. And it struck me, isn't it interesting that this family, when they saw other people and the choices of their lives violating the word of God, they were incensed; but when it came to their own desires and those desires came in conflict and intention with God's commands, which one won? Not God. Their desires.

So here's your test, friends. In your thinking, when your thinking comes into conflict with what God says in His word, who wins? You or God's word? In your choices, when your choosing comes into conflict with God's word, who wins? You or God? In your desires, in your interests, in your ambitions, when they come into conflict with what God says in His word, who wins? It is often at those crisis points in life that we really show our true colors. When our thinking, our choosing, our desiring comes into conflict with God's word, sometimes we will show that in the end we were God, not God. And others of us will show “God is my God.”

Now that is not to say that true Christians do not stumble and fall in some very spectacular ways. Peter denied his Lord. He chose Peter over Jesus. But he did it bitterly and he repented of it, and it was not characteristic of Peter's life to deny his Lord. In fact, one day he would die for his Lord. Judas liked money, and he betrayed his Lord and he never repented of it. So, yes, believers can stumble in some spectacular ways in these areas, but there is such a thing as a bent, a tendency, a whole tenor of life — and that's what Paul talks about when he talks about living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit. He's giving you a diagnostic. So ask yourself the question, “When my thinking and my choosing and my willing and my desires come into conflict with God, who wins?” And if I win, no matter how religious I am, I'm hostile to God because I'm choosing me over Him, and I'm choosing my wants over His words.

IV. Why living by the flesh and law cannot save.

And that leads Paul to this astounding statement in verse 8:

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

You understand. Paul, in that one verse, explains to you why the law can't save you. If you’re dead in sin and hostile to God, this message “be good” does not do you any good! If you’re dead in sin and hostile to God, the message “do this and live” is death for you. You need another message, and here's that message: “You must be born again.”

Do you understand that Paul in Romans 8:8 is virtually duplicating what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3? ‘Nicodemus, unless you are born again, you cannot even see the kingdom of God.’ So you see there is good news for those in the flesh, even in Romans 8:5-8, and here's the good news: The good news is that Jesus has died so that you can have new life. But you must have that new life, or you will die.

There is nothing that you can do for yourself to get this new life. Jesus must do what is necessary for you to have this new life, and the Holy Spirit must bring you to life. But if you find yourself this morning under conviction that you have for a long time been walking after the flesh — maybe it's that you have your mind set on things that in and of themselves are good, but they are more important to you than God is; they’re more important than His word, His calling, His people, and His gospel; they’re good things in and of themselves, but you love them more than you love God. You’re in the flesh. Or maybe your heart's set on sinful things. God says in His word don't do these things, but you’re getting pleasure from what you’re doing and you thumb your nose at God and you say ‘I'm getting pleasure from this; I have no intention of quitting.’ You’re in the flesh. If you find yourself in that place but under conviction this morning, then you need to be born again. You need to throw yourself at the feet of Christ and say, “Christ, save me. Christ, forgive me. Spirit, change me.”

When the announcement of my sabbatical was published by Claude Harbarger in The First Epistle, a godly lady in the congregation wrote to me to say some kind words of encouragement. And then she said, “Wouldn't it be glorious if this summer as Derek and Nate and Jeremy and Billy and Tom preach the word morning and evening…wouldn't it be glorious if God came in a visitation to this congregation and quickened us and revived us, and did a work of grace in our midst?” I thought it was a beautiful sentiment on her part. I join in that prayer. Maybe in Romans 8:5-8 God is beginning today to say a special word to your heart, where you are, in your pew. Are you walking according to the flesh, or are you walking according to the Spirit?

If you’re walking according to the Spirit today, all the comforts of Romans 8 belong to you. Revel in it this summer.

If you’re walking according to the flesh, then none of these comforts belong to you. You need new life, and you need pardon and acceptance, and acquittal and forgiveness, and you can only find that in the gospel.

Dear friends, do not fail to harken to God's word today. You must be born again.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, all of us, whether we're in the flesh or in the Spirit, all of us need the mind of Christ, our Savior. If we are in the Spirit, our minds are set on things of the Spirit; then make our minds to be more like Christ, our Savior. If we are in the flesh and our minds are set on us, then Lord God, give us a new mind — the mind of Christ, our Savior. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 624, and let's sing May the Mind of Christ, My Savior.

[Congregation sings.]

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Messiah. Amen.

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