I suppose if we polled people we’d find that 75% define sin as “doing what God forbids” or “breaking God’s law”. Paul would fall in that majority, but with a caveat. He would argue that sin is a power before it becomes our action. A power that lives in us. And, a power that indwells even believers in Christ.
In Romans 8:1-5, Paul tells his readers in the Roman church (and us) that those “in Christ Jesus” are no longer condemned to live under the domination of sin’s indwelling power. God’s Son came to condemn sin in us, so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who “walk” in conformity with the Spirit now living in us.
The Greek word translated “set the mind” is phronouson—also translated “ponder, be intent on, keep thinking about.” In 8:5 we face a translation dilemma. The dilemma leaves us with an important question: Is “setting [our] mind on the things of the Spirit” something we do “naturally” as Christians or must we deliberately choose to do it? Here’s the verse . . .
“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.”
The Greek word that most versions translate “live” is ontes, which means here, “For those who are according to the flesh . . . “. Is Paul talking about a state of being? Does “live” then mean something like “are alive”? If so, then “set their minds” is something we naturally do depending on who we are. That is, if we “are” according to the sinful nature (that is, we are unbelievers without the Spirit) we (naturally) set our minds on the things of the flesh. If we “are” according to the Spirit (that is, we are believers with the Spirit) we (by new nature) set our minds on the things of the Spirit. Therefore, Paul isn’t implicitly urging us to set our minds on the things of the Spirit. He’s explaining this is what we do because of who we are.
Paul gives us good reasons for understanding “live” as our state of being (and so we “naturally” set our minds on Spirit-things) and for understanding “live” as what we do (and so we should set our minds on Spirit-things).
First, in 8:9, he writes, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” State of being. What we are. Not an in-flesh person, but an in-Spirit person.
Second, in 8:4 and flowing immediately into 8:5, Paul writes, “(God by sending his own Son condemned sin in the flesh), “so that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk . . . according to the Spirit. For those who live [are] according to . . . the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” Context (“who walk”) implies “For those who live . . . ” is more than a state of being, but something we do.
Which is it? I sort of pick both (you knew I would). I take Paul to say, “Those who are in accord with the Spirit by faith in Christ, set their minds on Spirit-things. That’s what they do. So you should, so that you will walk in accord with the Spirit.”
It’s important to note this isn’t living by a new law. The indwelling Spirit is a power who enables us to walk in accord with him. Law on stone or on page can’t do that.
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:6-8).
Set your mind on your sinful nature, you will live a life of sin that ends in “death”. Every form of thanatos (“death”) in the New Testament refers, not to a natural process, but to a destroying power related to sin and its consequences. Spiritually, as Paul uses it here, it means separation from knowing God as a result of judgment.
But set your mind on the Spirit and that is “life and peace”. Life, as opposite from separation from God, is fellowship with him. Peace is both an end to enmity against God and shalom—complete well-being in fellowship with God.
Paul explains why the mind set on the sinful nature is “hostile” to God. (The Greek extha means hates God!) It doesn’t submit to God’s law; thus, it is hostile to God. In fact, it cannot submit to God’s law. “In-sinful-nature” people can’t be acceptable to God.
Note: becoming a Christian isn’t merely choosing to believe a set of doctrines. It’s experiencing a change from being in the flesh (sinful nature) to being in the Spirit (being made holy).
“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (8:9,10).
Paul assures his readers in the Rome church that they are not “in the flesh”. That is, their life, their state of being, is not in the sinful nature. They are “in the Spirit”. And this because God’s Spirit lives in them. “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (7:6).
Paul goes so far as to make having the Spirit of Christ the mark of who is a Christian and who is not. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Christ.”
But “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin . . . “ In other words, If Christ in us our body is still “dead” under the power of sin and will physically die.
“ . . . if Christ is in you . . . the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” In contrast to the “deadness” of our body. Paul explains that the Spirit indwelling us is the source of life, because righteousness has been imputed by Christ. And this life will reach even to our body . . .
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11).
If the same Spirit “who raised Jesus from the dead” dwells in us, “he who raised Christ from the dead will give to [our] mortal bodies also . . . “. Christ died and was raised by the Spirit. The same experience will be ours. God the Holy Spirit not only gives us a new spiritual nature; at this age’s end he will also give us a new bodily nature. The Spirit who will affect that transformation already indwells us.
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Romans 8:1-11 remains mostly meaningless to people (unbelievers and believers both), who define sin only as “doing what God’s doesn’t want”. In fact, our culture so emphasizes personal choice that most can’t conceive of having a nature that limits those choices to what leads to alienation from God and eternal death.
What Paul teaches here is counter-cultural. As always, culture seeps into the church. So: will we get our understanding of humanity-before-God from popular culture or the apostolic word?
That apostolic word begins by telling us our very nature is sinful. But it continues to tell us in faith-union with Jesus Christ, we can receive a new nature—the Spirit of Christ—who enables us to set our mind on Spirit-things and empowers us to practice them.
Commentator Leon Morris writes this about us who are “in the Spirit”: “ . . . their whole being centers on [the things of the Spirit]. What the Spirit does is their absorbing interest . . . It is . . . a delighted contemplation of what the Spirit does . . . “ (The Epistle to the Romans”, p. 305).
I have to confess my “whole being” is conflicted. At times I center on the things of the Spirit. At other times I do not do the good I want. Then, what the Spirit does is not my absorbing interest. I find myself caught up in a spiritual war. Indwelling sin (still residually living in me) pulls me down, while the indwelling Spirit (gifted to me by grace through Christ) urges me up.
I must ponder, be intent on and keep thinking about the “things” of the Spirit in order to “walk” in accord with the Spirit. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” that his Holy Spirit actually empowers me in this fight! And, “Thanks be to God”, also, that as I’m (still) learning to “walk out” my new nature, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!