There have been books written about the Christian life that indicate that becoming a “disciple” of Jesus Christ is, in the final analysis, merely optional. This conclusion is fatal, because it encourages us to suppose that we can be careless about our Christianity, doing little and achieving nothing, and yet go to heaven securely when we die. This really bothers me, the idea that one can live as the world lives and still go to heaven. If it is true, it is comfortable teaching. We are to have the best of both worlds, sin here and heaven, too. But if it is not true, those who teach it are encouraging people to believe that all is well with them when they are, in fact, not even saved. They are crying, “Peace!” when there is no peace. They are doing damage to their souls.
We come to this problem in the paragraph of Romans 8 that begins with verse 5, because in these verses, for the first time in the letter, the apostle gives a careful definition of the “carnal” person. The idea occurs five times in verses 5-8 (“sinful nature” in NIV) and it already occurred three times in verses 3-4. It means to be a merely sinful man, that is, man apart from the regenerating and transforming work of the Holy Spirit of God in salvation. This is what we have to keep in mind as we study Romans 8. For what Paul is talking about here is the difference between those who are Christians and those who are not. That is, he is speaking of two kinds of people only, not three. Specifically, he is not speaking of how a “carnal Christian” is supposed to move beyond a rather low state of commitment in order to become a more serious disciple of the Lord.
What is it that most characterizes an unsaved person? These verses define the unbeliever in four important ways: (1) in regard to his thinking, verse 5 tells us that “those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires.” (2) In regard to his state, verse 6 describes that the state of the unbeliever is “death.” Paul is not speaking of physical death, of course. He is speaking of spiritual death, and what he means is that the unsaved person is as responsive to the things of God as a corpse. (3) In regard to his religion, verse 7 tells us that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” At first glance it might seem strange to speak of the “religion” of those who operate according to the sinful nature, since we have just shown that they are unresponsive to God. But strange as it may seem, the unsaved do have a religion. (4) In regard to his present condition, the last thing Paul says of the unsaved, or “fleshly,” individual is that a person like this “cannot please God” (v. 8).
Paul isn’t writing only of unbelievers in these verses. He is also writing of Christians, contrasting them with unbelievers. He lists two of the Christian’s contrasting characteristics specifically. (1) The Christian thinking: In verse 5 the apostle contrasts the unbeliever and the Christian in terms of their thinking, saying that the unbeliever has his mind what the sinful nature desires but that the Christian has his mind “set on what the Spirit desires.” This eliminates many misconceptions; first, like the idea that the Christian is someone who is merely very “religious.” To be very religious and to be mindful of the things of the Spirit are two entirely different things. Second, it eliminates the idea that a Christian is anyone who merely holds the right theological beliefs. Being a Christian is more than giving mere verbal assent to certain doctrines. It is to be born again. And since being born again is the work of God’s Spirit, it is right to insist that those who are truly born again will have their minds set on what God desires. Finally, Paul’s way of speaking eliminates the idea that a Christian is someone who has attained a certain standard of approved conduct. What, then, does being a Christian mean? It means exactly what Paul says. The Christian is someone who has been born again by the work of the Holy Spirit and who now, as a result of that internal transformation, has his mind set on what the Spirit of God desires.
(2) The Christian’s state: The second specific characteristic of the Christian is his state, described as “life and peace” (v. 6). It is the opposite of “death,” which describes the non-Christian. The Christian is a person who has been made alive by God’s Spirit. Spiritual matters make sense to him now. Before, he was dead in his sins; now he is alive to a whole new world of reality. And he is at peace – peace with himself, as he never was before, in spite of many heroic efforts to convince himself that he was. Above all, he is at peace with God.
Paul has called us to examine ourselves by sharply contrasting those who live according to the sinful nature and those who live according to the Spirit (vv. 5-8), Paul continues by showing in a most encouraging manner, who a Christian really is in verses 9-11. His outline is simple. He talks about the Christian’s past, present, and future. The past is discussed in verse 9, the present in verse 10, and the future in verse 11.
Verse 9 discusses the Christian’s past. It’s important because it makes clearer than any other verse in this chapter that the description of those who are not controlled by the sinful nature but who live in accordance with the Holy Spirit applies to all Christians, not just to so-called spiritual ones. In other words, there is no ground for the doctrine of the “carnal Christian” here. Notice the apostle’s ruthless logic: (1) if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Christ; (2) if you belong to Christ, you will have the Spirit of Christ; and (3) if you have the Spirit of Christ, you will not be controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit. In other words, if you belong to Jesus, you will live like it. If you do not live like it, you do not belong to Him, regardless of your outward profession. This is an absolutely critical thing, for it means that being a Christian is not merely a matter of adopting a particular set of intellectual or theological beliefs, however true they may be. It involves a change of state, which is accomplished, not by us, but by God who saves us.
Verse 10 describes the Christian’s present state. In some versions of the Bible the word “spirit” is printed with a capital “S”, as referring to the Holy Spirit, but this is an error. The verse is referring to our spirit and should be printed with a lower case “s.” It is a reference to our being born again. Although our physical bodies will die and are, in a certain sense, as good as dead now, our spirits have been made alive by the Holy Spirit whom the Father has sent to do precisely that. What does it mean to have our spirits made alive by the Holy Spirit? Paul is talking about the present experience of the Christian, remember. So he means that by the new birth the Spirit has made us alive to things we were dead to before.
Verse 11 describes the Christian’s future, pointing forward to his or her physical resurrection. Although we will die physically, we shall all nevertheless rise again. There are two common mistakes in the interpretation of this verse that we should not fall into. The first misunderstanding is that the text is speaking not of a future physical resurrection but some kind of moral resurrection. Paul is not thinking of that here. The second mistake is to think of this in terms of “faith healing,” which some have done, supposing it to be a promise of perfect health for those who believe God will heal them. This idea is simply foreign to the context. The verse is speaking about a future resurrection, and it is regarding it as certain for all who are in Christ.
Are you a Christian? By all means, ask that question of yourself. Be sure of the answer. But when you are sure, be sure of this truth, too: nothing in heaven or earth will ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that your future will be even better than is your life with Jesus now.
Romans 8:5-11 Reflection Questions:
In verses 5-11 Paul moves into an extended contrast between what is flesh and what is Spirit. He is talking about “material” verses “nonmaterial,” since for Paul as a Jew the physical created order was good. From what Paul says here then, define what he means by these terms.
How does Paul say you can tell the difference between those who are concerned with “flesh” and those concerned with “the Spirit?”
Give some examples of what it might look like to live life concerned with the things of the Spirit.
Paul has not developed a regular formula for speaking about God as one in three, but he already possessed all the elements that would later be known as “Trinitarian theology.” How are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit seen in verses 5-11?