The Mindset of Flesh and Spirit
Scripture: Romans 8:1–8:8
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 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, 4 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. 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. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 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. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
We spent most of our time last week studying Romans 8:3. In this one verse, Paul summarizes the gospel that he says he was not ashamed to proclaim. What made him so bold, so confident of the gospel, was his awareness that God had now “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 the flesh of the Messiah, in the very person of Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, God had brought condemnation on sin. This is why we Christians celebrate Christmas. It is the whole sum of our joy during the advent season. God has done something amazing: he has condemned sin in the humanity of his incarnate Son.
We’re trying to understand this good news. We’re trying to see what Paul saw that made him such a bold proclaimer of the gospel. The eighth chapter of Romans can really help us see what is so good about the gospel. One thing we can now see, because of the incarnation of Jesus, is that there are two realms in which we find two different mindsets that result in two different outcomes.
So, in verse 5, Paul speaks to these two distinct ways of living. But one thing must be said at the start. What we find in the next several verses is not an exhortation to live one way instead of the other. The focus here is not on competing moral behaviors that we need to decide between. Please get this clear. Paul is describing two different realms, two different realities in which certain kinds of behavior or conduct are found. We need to understand the two different realms first.
Flesh and Spirit
We can see that Paul is contrasting the flesh with the Spirit, so we need to know what he means by these two terms. If we go back to Romans 7:5, we recall that Paul could speak of a time when “we were living in the flesh.” But, he goes on to say in verse 6, that “now we are released from the law . . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.” The contrast, then, is between two different realms, one which is dominated by a power called “the flesh” and the other dominated by the power of the Spirit, that is, by the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit.
Now, to be a Christian means you have been set free from the realm of the flesh and transferred into the realm of the Spirit. This transference from one realm to the other is what Paul speaks of in Colossians 1:13, where he praises God for delivering “us from the domain of darkness” and transferring “us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” So, the realm of the flesh is the place from which non-Christians live, and the realm of the Spirit is the place from which Christians live. These are distinct realms that distinguish believers from unbelievers and that explain the differences that emerge between them.
Again, it is important to see that Paul is not talking about the way things ought to be. He is speaking about the way things are. He says in verse 5, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh,” and vice-versa for “those who live according to the Spirit.” The Greek does not use the verb “live” here but rather the verb “to be.” He is referring not to those who live in accordance with the flesh or spirit but rather those who “are” in accordance with the one or the other. The New American Standard makes this clear: “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.” This is important, for Paul is talking about a fact, an unchangeable reality. He’s describing people who come from different realms, from different cultural contexts.
If you travel to a different culture, you will find that people live differently than you do in your own culture. The culture is the context in which certain kinds of conduct are found and explained. What Paul is speaking about here is an entirely different culture found “in Christ,” and certain ways of living within that culture that now make sense. The conduct which he will come to soon enough cannot be isolated from the culture which inevitably produces it.
The Cultural Explanation
Now the burden of these verses is to explain how it is that the same law can pronounce a verdict of condemnation and death over some and a verdict of vindication and life over others. Why is it that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1)? Verse 2 says that it is because Christians have been set free “from the law of sin and death” by “the law of the Spirit of life.” These are not two different laws. These are two different verdicts coming from the same law. And it is culture that explains the different verdicts.
So what verse 3 says the law could not do is explained in verse 4. The “righteous requirement” of the law is better understood as the righteous verdict of the law. The law could not pronounce life over any of us human beings because of the cancer of sin that had taken root. But since God has condemned sin in the flesh of the Messiah, God has now made it possible for the law to do what it wanted to do all along.
This good news—this gospel—is not a message only of what awaits us after death. It is just as much a message for the here and now. It is because of the gospel so vividly described in verse 3 that verse 4 can now be true. One of God’s purposes for the cross of Christ was “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” The “righteous requirement of the law” does not refer to moral behavior, commands to be obeyed. What Jesus did for us on the cross was not to make it now possible for us to keep God’s law and on those grounds be justified. However, Jesus did do something in his death that makes it possible for the law to announce over us a positive verdict, a verdict of life. Jesus did not merely neutralize the law, far less did he abolish it. Jesus turned the law away from announcing a verdict of condemnation and death to now announcing a verdict of vindication and life. And this is true for Christians living now, not just our hope when we die.
So notice, next, the present difference for Christians evident in the two contrasting mindsets.
The verb “to set the mind” in verse 5 and is nominal use in verse 6 again need to be read as part of the distinct cultural realities from which they emerge. What we are reading here are not exhortations to choose between two different ways of living. Paul is not giving us the option to think one way or the other but describing instead something that is just the way it is for the whole person. He is not describing something like an American living as Chinese as they possibly can in Beijing. He is saying that Christians and non-Christians have a different mindset not because of mental effort but because of where they’re from.
So, those who are from “the flesh” have their minds set on “the things of the flesh.” All of us are born “of the flesh,” which means that we are born united to Adam, fallen, corruptible creatures. And as such, it is natural for us to have our minds set in a particular way. Paul is speaking here of ways of thinking that all human beings share by virtue of our humanity, despite our many differences. The mind is the place where sin wages war and takes us captive (Rom 7:23). And Paul is speaking of those who are “according to the flesh” as held captive to the fleshly way of thinking. We can speak of this mindset as “natural” because it is what comes “natural” to us given the fallen cultural context in which we are all born and raised.
But if we become Christians, we find a whole new way of thinking also becomes true. The mind becomes set on “the things of the Spirit,” and this means we see the world differently than we did before.
No wonder, then, Christians are strangers in the world. We just think differently than non-Christians think, and that’s why we live differently than they do.
But let us be careful to notice that it is the culture of the Spirit that distinguishes us from non-Christians and not some other fleshly culture. The distinction in these verses is not between different forms of fallen cultures but between the culture of Christ and the various cultures of humanity, all of which are fallen. We easily mistake the two.
As Christians, we know the fallen culture of the flesh all too well, because it is from this culture that we have been redeemed, delivered, transferred out of. Because of Christ, we’ve become citizens of a new kingdom, but none of us started out there. These verses in Romans 8 do not say that we find ourselves somewhere in-between these two kingdoms; nevertheless, we can easily confuse the two.
So we must be careful that we do not equate the kingdom of Christ with any of the various fallen kingdoms of men. Let me be blunt: being an American does not equal being a Christian. Being an American does not make you one inch closer to being a Christian either. And the same is true for any other nationality or sub-culture. Your political affiliation does not mean you are closer to Christ than if you were in some other party.
Of course, we all see the world from our own cultural perspectives and political preferences. But what we must not do is confuse this perspective with the Christian perspective which stands against all others. And we certainly must never prioritize our fallen perspectives over the Christian one. This is a challenge for us, because in the redeemed community, in the realm of the Spirit, we will find ourselves surrounded by people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Needless to say, there is quite a diversity in the kingdom of God! What unites us is nothing other than the Lamb who was slain and who has made us all “a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev 5:10).
Nothing could be more irreverent to our Lord than to prioritize our relationship with those who vote like us over those who will forever reign on the earth with us! If you are not a Christian, you have no other perspective than what any other person on earth can have. But if you are a Christian, then you have a citizenship the world cannot know. Let us be sure, then, that we prioritize the privilege of being citizens of the kingdom of God over the privileges we find as members of any kingdom of man.
After all, what we have been promised as those who are “of the Spirit” is a much better outcome than we could dare to dream as those who are “of the flesh.” For the outcome of those who are of the flesh and have their minds set on the flesh is death, while the outcome of those who are of the Spirit and have their minds set on the Spirit is life and peace.
Life and Death
The outcome of the flesh is death. This is, of course, literally true. It is the world in which we live. Death is always the end, the final result. We have become so accustomed to it that it is difficult to imagine the world being any other way. How, indeed, would the world work without the reality of death? It is the way things are. To deny it is to deny reality. But the Bible says this is not the way the world is meant to be. The reason why there is death is because we live in a culture of death. We live with a mindset of death. All of us do. It is the shared common reality of all humanity because we all share in the cultural context of the first Adam. It is the cultural context of sin, of transgression of God’s revealed will, of rebellion against God himself. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin,” Romans 5:12 says, “and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
But the Christian claim is that the world was made to be different, and that, because of the gospel, it is and can be different again. Because the outcome of the Spirit mindset is life. This is the world in which God reigns. And in this world, death has no place. Because death is such a familiar foe for us humans, we can just begin to imagine how vastly different everything would be if it was no longer a threat. The contrast set up in verses 5-6 could not be starker; the results that came from these two cultural realities could not be more consequential. The claims of biblical Christianity could not be more relevant to the world we all inhabit. This is just not something to be ignored.
For notice that the claim here is not that death must be conceded so that we can finally get out of this fleshly world marked by death and fly away in some ghostly existence into a spiritual world where nothing is the same. This is not the message of Christianity. The message of the Christian gospel is that God has condemned sin (v. 3). And since it is sin that has ruined the world and brought it under the sentence of death, the claim that sin has now been brought into conviction and sentenced to death is the claim that the world once ruined has been redeemed. The result of such a claim must necessarily be life rather than death. There could not be better news than this! There could not be more relevant news than this! How can it be ignored? How can this not dominate the local or state news? How could it not be headline news in our nation, indeed in the whole world?
The answer is straightforward: because it doesn’t make sense within a culture of death. It cannot be understood in such a world. That’s just not the mindset. It simply doesn’t make sense, so it will never be proclaimed in that world, even though the world longs for this.
We see, then, that what the Bible announces is not an either/or world. In the beginning, the world that was—the world that God created—was a world of life. But when sin entered the world “through one man,” the world fundamentally changed. It became a world of death. The day is coming when, the Bible promises, death will be no more. Once again, the only world there will then be is a world of life.
But, when God sent his Son and condemned sin, this promised new world of life began even though all around the world we see is the same world marked by death. So where is this new world of life? Where can we look to see it? We can only see it in Christ, in the Messiah. This life, this new life, this new world may only be found in the one in whom sin and death has met their match. The evidence that in and only in Messiah Jesus there is a new world, a new creation, is his bodily resurrection from the dead. This is the proof we need to see that the new world has come. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).
It is in Christ that we find this new world with a mindset of God’s own Holy Spirit and with the resulting outcome of life. And yes, we mean real, bodily life. A resurrection of the body, just as Jesus was raised. Life that has overcome death. Because Jesus has already been raised, this resurrection life has already come and is already true for those who are “in him,” for those who are united to him by faith. As Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26). Now, only someone who died and rose from the dead could make such a claim and be taken seriously. If Jesus of Nazareth, the fully human historical person that we Christians worship, is dead, then our hope is gone and we have no gospel.
But if it’s true, then in Jesus there is, in fact, a new world. But again, it is only in Jesus. The world outside of Christ is still the world of the flesh, the world plagued by death.
Peace or Hostility
But it’s not just marked by death. It’s also marked by hostility, by the lack of peace. This also is evident to us all. Death and hostility are as practical a summary of the world we see as we can get.
But the promise of the gospel is that there is a world of peace rather than hostility. In this fallen world, it just doesn’t seem possible, does it? We all long for it, we all work for it, but peace alludes us. Even now we live with the very real threat of war in one form or another.
Of course, we could have peace—if everyone would just conform to one prevailing power on earth, if like the ancient Greeks or Romans, some national government would just take over the whole world. Everyone ok with that?
Well, even if you are, such a kingdom would not last. It could not last. Either the new king would die or there would be a rebellion, or both!
But what if there were a kingdom that had conquered every possible foe, with a king who was immortal, and a rule that no one would ever want to rebel against? Such is the promised kingdom of God! Those who are in the flesh are hostile to him, unwilling, indeed unable, to submit to him and his law, verse 7 says. But you “are not in the flesh,” verse 9 says, an indication that the kingdom of God has come. It is here. And through Jesus, you can be a citizen of this eternal kingdom of life and peace.
 N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 580-81.