THE INCLINATION OF OUR HEART IS REVEALED BY WHETHER WE WALK IN THE SPIRIT OR IN THE FLESH
Michael Bird: Paul’s purpose in vv. 5-8 is not to warn Christians about the perils of walking, living, and thinking in the realm of the flesh. He will do that soon enough in v. 13, but here he presents more of a contrast between those who belong to the flesh and those who belong to the Spirit. In other words, Paul is not making an exhortation to believers at this point but is juxtaposing two groups of people, the converted and the unconverted. It is a kind of argument to the effect “think of what you were when you were called” to underscore their sinful state prior to coming to Christ, set in direct contrast to the spiritual life that they now possess (see 1 Cor 1:26; 6.11; Eph 2:1 – 3). According to Moo: “Paul’s main purpose is to highlight the radical differences between the flesh and the Spirit as a means of showing why only those who ‘walk/think/are’ after the Spirit can have eschatological life.”
David Thompson: IT IS NOT OUR FLESH THAT GUARANTEES WE WILL BE PLEASING TO GOD; IT IS THE HOLY SPIRIT WHO LIVES IN US THAT GUARANTEES WE WILL BE PLEASING TO GOD. . .
In view of how God has favored us by graciously giving us His Spirit, we have a continual obligation not to be continually living according to the flesh. This does not mean there will not be moments of failure, but we have the responsibility to see that those moments of failure do not become our habitual or continual pattern of life. We have an obligation to see to it that our flesh does not continually control the way we live. The antithesis of this is that we have an obligation to see to it that the Holy Spirit is who continually controls our pattern of life.
A. Berkeley Mickelson: Here the stress is on those who are in accordance with the flesh or with the Spirit. In one group are those occupied with all the particulars that go into a sinful life. In the other group are those occupied with all that goes into life under the direction and power of the Spirit.
S. Lewis Johnson: In the fifth verse of the chapter the apostle gives the first of the reasons why believers walk after the Spirit. In other words, the “for” of the verse is connected with the last clause of the preceding verse. Men walk according to the inward inclination, bent, or disposition that they have. Thus, those who have at their inmost center the lusts of the flesh will walk after the flesh, while the opposite is true of those who walk according to the Spirit. To “be” after the flesh is to exist only for the flesh, and the clause, then, refers to the unbeliever. They mind the things of the flesh, that is, they think and will according to the desires of the flesh. Their conduct follows accordingly. On the other hand, they that “are” after the Spirit think and will according to inclinations implanted by Him in the inmost being of the believer. They are inclined to holiness, just as the unbelievers are inclined to unholiness. The renewed nature of the believer, upheld by the Spirit, determines the bent of the life.
I. (:5-8) OUR WALK REFLECTS OUR MINDSET
Warren Wiersbe: Paul is not describing two kinds of Christians, one carnal and one spiritual. He is contrasting the saved and the unsaved. There are four contrasts.
- In the flesh – in the Spirit ( 5)
- Death – life ( 6)
- War with God – peace with God ( 6-7)
- Pleasing self – pleasing God ( 8).
A. (:5) What Is Our Mindset?
- Things of the Flesh
“For those who are according to the flesh
set their minds on the things of the flesh,”
John Murray: “The flesh” is human nature as corrupted, directed, and controlled by sin. “After the Spirit” (vss. 4, 5) and “in the Spirit” (vs. 9) are also to the same effect, with a similar distinction as to the angle from which the relationship to the Holy Spirit is viewed. Those concerned are conditioned by and patterned after the Holy Spirit.
To “mind the things of the flesh” (vs. 5) is to have the things of the flesh as the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection, and purpose. And “the mind of the flesh” (vs. 6) is the dispositional complex, including not simply the activities of reason but also those of feeling and will, patterned after and controlled by the flesh. In like manner to mind “the things of the Spirit” (vs. 5) is to have the things of the Holy Spirit as the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection, and purpose, and “the mind of the Spirit” is the dispositional complex, including the exercises of reason, feeling, and will, patterned after and controlled by the Holy Spirit.
- Things of the Spirit
“but those who are according to the Spirit,
the things of the Spirit.”
Frank Thielman: Paul probably intended, therefore, to communicate that the pattern of life dictated by the flesh and the pattern of life dictated by the Spirit are rivals grappling for influence over the person. In the language of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17; cf. Rom 7:16, 19–20, 23). The cognitive element preserved in most translations and assumed by most commentators is not missing, however, as his use of the noun “mindset” (φρόνημα) in 8:6–7 shows (cf. 8:27).
The Spirit lives within believers (8:9), so the believer’s life is governed by the Spirit’s norms. These norms are expressed in “the righteous requirement of the law,” which, as we saw in the comments on 8:3–4, is probably a reference to the love command as the summary of the law. The Spirit, then, frees believers from the domination of sin and the flesh and empowers believers to live in a new way, oriented toward love for others.
Michael Gorman: Life in the Spirit is not, however, automatic; it requires active participation by believers, who must now set their minds on (the things of) the Spirit (as Paul said in 8:5–6) and actively oppose the flesh (8:12–13; cf. 6:12–13; Gal 5:16–26).
B. (:6) What Is Our Disposition?
“For the mind set on the flesh is death,”
- Life and Peace
“but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,”
Frank Thielman: Here Paul uses the term metaphorically to describe the natural, and opposing, dispositions of the flesh and the Spirit. The flesh tilts those whose existence belongs to it toward death, and the Spirit tilts those who belong to him toward life and peace. This mention of “peace” as something the Spirit brings recalls Paul’s description in 5:1–11 of the peace that believers have with God after the outpouring of his love through the Holy Spirit and after the initiative he took in the death of Christ to reconcile himself to his enemies (5:1, 6–10).
C. (:7-8) What Characterizes the Mind Set on the Flesh?
- (:7a) Hostility toward God
“because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God;”
- (:7b) Rebellion against God
“for it does not subject itself to the law of God,”
- (:7c) Inability to Obey God
“for it is not even able to do so;”
R. Kent Hughes: The mind-set of those without Christ has distinct characteristics:
- hostility toward God, and
- an inability to subject itself to God.
These govern its orientation to all of life.
Steven Cole: Paul does not stop by saying that those who are in the flesh do not submit to God’s law. He goes further by saying that they are not even able to do so, adding (8:8), “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Cannot is a word of inability. It goes back to the matter of a sinner’s fallen nature in Adam, which is incapable of obeying God or pleasing Him. Just as a pig is free to act in line with its pig nature, but not in line with a human nature, so fallen sinners are free to act in line with the flesh, but not in line with the Holy Spirit, whom they do not possess.
But many who contend for so-called “free will” argue that God has given all people the ability to choose salvation. This is called “prevenient grace.” I don’t have time to go into the arguments for this doctrine, but they are biblically weak. (For a full refutation of this idea, see Thomas Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in Still Sovereign [Baker], ed. by Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, pp. 229-246.)
Suffice it to say that elsewhere Paul also teaches human inability to respond to the gospel apart from God’s gracious enabling power. That is clear from his reference to sinners as dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-5) and as being blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4). Dead people cannot choose to live. Blind people cannot choose to see. Paul also says that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God, which includes the message of the cross, which he says is foolishness to the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. 1:18-30).
Jesus also taught that no one can come to Him unless the Father grants it and draws him (John 6:44, 65). He pointedly asked the skeptical Jews (John 8:43), “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered His own question, “It is because you cannot hear My word.” Obviously they could hear what He was saying, but they lacked the spiritual ability to hear with obedience.
And since those in the flesh cannot please God and faith pleases God (Heb. 11:6), sinners cannot believe in Jesus Christ for salvation by their own free will, apart from God’s special saving grace. The fallen human will is not free; it’s in bondage. This means that in the order of salvation, regeneration precedes faith. God must impart life to dead sinners so that they can believe the gospel (John 1:13; and, note the Greek verb tenses in 1 John 5:1).
- (:8) Inability to Please God
“and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
John Murray: In the whole passage we have the biblical basis for the doctrines of total depravity and total inability. It should be recognized, therefore, that resistance to these doctrines must come to terms not simply with the present-day proponents of these doctrines but with the apostle himself. “Enmity against God” is nothing other than total depravity and “cannot please God” nothing less than total inability.
William Hendriksen: It is interesting and instructive to note how often Scripture, especially Paul, describes the purpose of human life to be that of pleasing God (Rom. 12: 1, 2; 14:18; 1 Cor. 7:32; 2 Cor. 5:9; Eph. 5:10; Phil. 4:18; Col. 3:20; 1 Thess. 4:1). . . Paul, either explicitly or by implication, expresses his disapproval upon those who please not God but themselves. Cf. Rom. 15:3; 1 Thess. 2:15.
II. (:9-11) OUR WALK REFLECTS WHETHER THE HOLY SPIRIT LIVES IN US —
ALL CHRISTIANS HAVE THE INDWELLING SPIRIT TO GIVE VICTORY IN LIFE NOW AND RESURRECTION LIFE ULTIMATELY
A. (:9) Do We Possess the Indwelling Holy Spirit?
- Holy Spirit Lives in Every Believer
“However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit,
if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
Douglas Moo: Every Christian really is “in the Spirit”—under his domination and control. We may not always reflect that domination (see 8:12–13), but it is a fundamental fact of our Christian existence and the basis for a life of confidence and obedience to the Lord.
Steven Cole: If God’s Spirit dwells in you, you belong to Christ; and though your physical body will die, God will raise your body from the dead.
When we trusted Christ as Savior and Lord, we changed realms from living “according to the flesh” to living “according to the Spirit.” We used to be “in the flesh,” living under its ruling influence. Now we live “in the Spirit,” under His rule and the Spirit lives in us. . .
Some Pentecostal groups teach that you must receive the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation. They base this on a misinterpretation of Acts 19:2, where Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist and asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” When they reply no, Paul explains some things, prays for them, and they receive the Holy Spirit. But it’s important to understand that Acts is a transitional book from the age of the Law, when the Spirit was only given to some and could be withdrawn (Ps. 51:11) to the age of the promised Holy Spirit, who permanently indwells all who are born again (John 7:39; 14:17; 1 Cor. 12:13). Romans 8:9 makes it clear that if you have been born again, you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you. If you don’t have the Spirit, you do not belong to Christ.
This does not mean that we should not ask for a deeper experience of the Spirit’s presence and power. We must yield more and more of ourselves to the Spirit’s control as we become aware of areas that we have not given to Him. We are commanded to walk by means of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16) and to be filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). But if you have been born again and your trust is in Christ as Savior and Lord, you do not need to receive the Holy Spirit. He dwells in every believer.
- Holy Spirit Does Not Live In Any Unbeliever
“But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ,
he does not belong to Him.”
B. (:10) Dynamic Activity of the Indwelling Holy Spirit Promoting Righteous Living
- Based on Union with Christ
“And if Christ is in you,”
Frank Thielman: The expression “Christ is in you” stands parallel to the ideas that God’s Spirit dwells within Paul’s audience and that they have the Spirit of Christ in 8:9. This raises the question whether Paul distinguished between God’s Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, and the presence of Christ within believers. The answer becomes clear in 8:11 where Paul distinguishes between the Spirit of God on one hand and Jesus, whom God’s Spirit raised from the dead, on the other hand. Paul probably understood the Spirit of God as the means through which Christ was present with believers despite Christ’s physical location in his resurrected body at God’s right hand (8:34). The situation is analogous to Paul’s description of his own spirit’s presence with the Corinthians for the purpose of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:3–5.
- Based on Freedom from the Power of Sin
“though the body is dead because of sin,”
- Based on the Life-Giving Spirit
“yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”
John Murray: The ruling thought of the verse is that although believers die and this fact is conspicuously exhibited in the dissolution of the body, yet, since Christ dwells in believers, life-giving forces are brought to bear upon death and this life is placed in sharp contrast with the disintegrating power which is exemplified in the return to dust on the part of the body. Reference to the Holy Spirit as life is signally congruous with this thought.
C. (:11) Resurrection Hope
“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead
will also give life to your mortal bodies
through His Spirit who indwells you.”
Frank Thielman: Just as Paul’s audience possesses bodies that are subject to death, so Jesus was once among the dead; but just as God used the Spirit to raise Jesus from the dead, so this same Spirit, now dwelling within Paul’s audience, will give life to their mortal bodies (cf. 2 Cor 5:4–5).
The Roman believers, then, have a bright future in which they will one day inhabit bodies like Jesus’s resurrected body (cf. 1 Cor 15:20–24, 48–56). This is the “eternal life” that, according to 2:7, God will give those who “seek glory and honor and immortality by endurance in good work” (2:7). It is the “hope of the glory of God” in which those who have been justified by faith can boast (5:2; cf. 5:5). This is also the sense in which we shall be saved “through” Christ and “by his life” (5:9–10).
Michael Bird: Paul has shown earlier that the goal of grace is eternal life (2:7; 5:21; 6:22-23). The spiritual life enjoyed in the present is only a deposit of the life to come and not an end in itself (see 2 Cor 1:22-23; 4:16 – 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). Johnson’s description is perfect: “The transforming Spirit that God has given to humans is the pledge and portent of future life in the resurrection.” There is a future life that is yet to arrive in the form of the resurrection of the coming age. If the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in believers, this same Spirit who imparted glorious immortal life to Jesus will impart the same life to them. The nature of that resurrection life is explored elsewhere by Paul (see 1 Cor 15:35-58; Phil 3:21; 1 Thess 4:17). What should be emphasized is that for Paul, this God-given “life,” both now and in the future, is the concrete incarnation of his righteous verdict. Righteousness reigns in life through resurrection life (see 5:17; 8:34). Thus, God’s righteousness is a verdict that vivifies.
John Murray: The leading thought of the whole verse may be set forth thus.
(1) The Father raised up Christ.
(2) The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father when the Father is contemplated in this specific capacity as the one who raised up Jesus.
(3) The Holy Spirit dwells in believers and dwells in them as the Spirit of the Father.
(4) This indwelling of the Spirit, since it is an indwelling of the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus, guarantees the resurrection from the dead of those thus indwelt.
III. (:12-13) OUR OBLIGATION IS TO WALK IN THE SPIRIT –
WALKING IN THE FLESH RESULTS IN DEATH BUT WALKING IN THE SPIRIT — LIFE
A. (:12) Consistent Obligation
“So then, brethren, we are under obligation,
not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—“
Frank Thielman: The expression “so then” (ἄρα οὖν) introduces a conclusion drawn from the preceding discussion (cf. 5:18; 7:3, 25), in this case the discussion in 8:1–11 of the believer’s liberation from the overpowering influence of the flesh (cf. 7:14–25). If God has condemned sin in the flesh though the death of Christ (8:3) and believers do not walk according to the flesh (8:4), do not have the mindset of the flesh (8:5–7), and in some sense are not in the flesh (8:9), then they owe the flesh nothing.
The implied admonition here shows that Paul understood the danger that their fallen nature continued to present to believers. His point is not that his audience will no longer have a problem with sin but that the death of Christ and the presence of the Spirit have freed them from the overwhelming nature of sin’s power. They are now able to choose not to sin.
Michael Bird: The logic is that if Christ lives in them and if the Spirit enlivens them, it is unimaginable for anyone to live in the realm of the flesh.
Frank Murray: The force of the inference is apparent. How contradictory for us, having been delivered by the Spirit from the law of sin and death and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, to yield our obedience and service to that from which the Holy Spirit has emancipated us!
Everett Harrison: “Obligation” is the keynote. Only the negative side is stated; the positive side – that we are debtors to the Spirit – must be inferred. If we do not have an obligation to live in terms of the sinful nature, the conclusion must be that our obligation is to live and serve God in terms of the Spirit. It is tremendously important to grasp the import of v.12, because it teaches beyond all question that the believer still has the sinful nature within himself, despite having been crucified with Christ. The flesh has not been eradicated. But we are obliged not “to live according to it.” There is really no option, for the flesh is linked to death as life is linked to the Spirit. Sanctification is not a luxury but a necessity. As Bishop Handley Moule stated, “It is not an ambition; it is a duty”.
B. (:13) Two Possible Destinies
- Walking in the Flesh — Death
“for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die;”
James Boice: Paul is saying that if you live like a non-Christian, dominated by your sinful nature rather than living according to the Holy Spirit, you will perish like a non-Christian—because you are a non-Christian.
- Walking in the Spirit — Life
“but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Steven Cole: You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “Kill your TV!” That may be wise advice, but the apostle Paul gives us even wiser counsel in our text: Kill your sin! It’s a concept that we don’t hear much about any more. But it used to be a widely understood approach to sanctification. The Puritans called it “the mortification of sin.” In our times, to be mortified means to be embarrassed, but the word really means to be killed. The Puritans all knew that we are engaged in mortal combat with an enemy that lurks within: the flesh (or the old man, or indwelling sin). Either you kill it every day or it will kill you. . .
“putting to death the deeds of the body” — Paul is focusing on the body as the instrument through which the sinful deeds of the flesh are expressed. Until Jesus returns, we live in a body that is still prone toward sin. Sin is sin even on the thought level, before it ever displays itself through the body (Mark 7:20-23). But if we kill it on the thought level, it will not become a deed of the body. Sins that are expressed through the body are always worse than sins of the mind, because they damage others and bring dishonor to God. Thus we must put to death the deeds of the body by cutting them off in the mind before they are expressed openly.
Frank Thielman: The expression “by the Spirit” translates a dative of means (πνεύματι) and indicates the way in which believers are to put evil deeds to death. This does not imply that believers control or wield the Spirit as a tool since in the next sentence Paul describes them as “led by the Spirit of God” (8:14). Instead Paul must mean that the Spirit enables believers to do the good that the “inner human being” and the “mind” of the “I” of 7:22–23, unaided by the Spirit, could not do (cf. Gal 5:16, 25).