Flesh vs. Spirit

A few weeks ago, I preached on a beautiful passage in Romans 8 where Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1).  During that lesson, I made the comment that there are some people who might say, “But if folks believe that, then they’re going to have the attitude, ‘We can live any way we want to and God won’t condemn us.’”  But, as I pointed out, Paul goes on to tell us that if we are truly in Christ Jesus, we will walk according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh.  This morning, I want to talk about exactly what that means.

            In 1991, there was a preacher in Michigan who robbed 14 banks in order to finance his encounters with prostitutes.  Perhaps even more surprising than that were the religious writers who were fully convinced that this preacher was a true Christian.  I would agree with John MacArthur, however, who said, “Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is fair to raise the question of whether someone who regularly robs banks to pay for illicit sex is truly saved!”

            The problem, though, is that we have created a religious environment in this country where we can tolerate just about anything.  A recent survey by the Barna group showed that 12% of those who claim to be Christians say there’s nothing wrong with a married person having an affair.  36% of those who claim to be Christians believe that there is nothing immoral about having sex before marriage.  20% of those who claim to be Christians believe there’s nothing wrong with getting drunk. 

            But I’m not sure that any of that should really surprise us.  Because, when you think about it, most preachers teach that all someone has to do to be saved is just to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.  And so you simply need to say a prayer to invite Jesus into your heart, and you’re saved.  And the result is a country that is filled with people who have accepted Jesus as their Savior, but they have never accepted him as their Lord.  And until Jesus becomes Lord of our lives, our lives will never change.


            The Bible is clear that salvation is a matter of God giving us new life.  And that new life will always manifest itself in changed behavior.  Now that’s not to say that true Christians will never commit a sin.  But it is to say that it is impossible for us to complacent about sin.  And while spiritual growth is a lifelong process, there must always be growth in the life of every Christian.

            In Romans 8:1, Paul gives us the assurance that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  If we are in Christ, we will not be condemned on the day of judgment.  Jesus paid the penalty we deserved when he was nailed to the cross.  The Holy Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death.  But those who are “in Christ” “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” 

            And so, we pick up this morning 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.  You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:5-9a)

            Paul says here that there are two distinct groups — there are some people whose lives are lived according to the flesh; and then there are others whose lives are lived according to the Spirit.  Allow me to point out several things from our text.

1.     There are two groups of people and only two groups of people in this world.

            Everybody in the world falls into one of these two categories – either they live according to the flesh, or they live according to the Spirit.  There is no third alternative. 

            And it’s important for us to understand that Paul is not writing here about two different kinds of Christians.  Rather, he is talking about how non-Christians are different from true Christians.  

            You see, there is this popular but mistaken view that there are two optional tracks for the Christian life.  If you are an extremist, you can sign up for the discipleship track.  And, under this plan, you will give up everything to follow Christ.  You will suffer hardship, sacrifice, and perhaps even martyrdom. You will have to give the control of all of your material assets to Christ.  You may be required to take the gospel to a foreign culture, where you’ll live in difficult and perhaps dangerous circumstances. But, your reward in heaven will be great. This discipleship track is for the super-committed.

            And then there is another track for the rest of us more “ordinary” Christians. Under this plan, you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and then you’re baptized (to make sure that you go to heaven), but you also pursue your dreams for success and personal fulfillment in this life.  You get the best of both worlds without needing to be gung ho, like those on the discipleship track.  

            You can enjoy the fellowship of a good church and pursue the American dream all at the same time.  Just drop something in the collection plate once in a while to pay your dues.  Once in a while you can volunteer to help out at church, when it fits in with your busy schedule.  Don’t be too hard on yourself about obedience to God’s commands.  After all, we’re all human.  God is gracious and he understands your weaknesses.  So just accept yourself the way you are and don’t think that you have to be all-out for Jesus.  That’s just for those fanatics who are on the discipleship track.

            But Jesus made it clear that there is only one track for the Christian life.  He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

            Jesus said, if you want eternal life, you’re going to have to die to yourself and commit your life to following Jesus.  In Paul’s language, that describes the person who walks “according to the Spirit.”  The other track describes those who walk “according to the flesh.”  And those are the only two groups in the world.

            Everybody in the world either lives according to the flesh or they live according to the Spirit.  Everyone in this room either lives according to the flesh or you live according to the Spirit. 

2.         These two groups are sharply distinguished by different mindsets.

            “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.” (Romans 8:5) 

            Paul describes the mindset of those who live according to the flesh as being hostile toward God, not willing to submit to God’s laws (8:7).  On the other hand, the mindset of the Spirit, since it is the opposite of the mindset of the flesh, is the mindset of those who seek to be close to God, who submit themselves fully to God’s law.

            To live “according to the flesh” means that the flesh is what guides you in the decisions you make.  To live “according to the Spirit” means that you are guided by the Holy Spirit, and that you are moving in the direction he’s trying to take you as he dwells in you.

            Let’s notice a couple of things about these mindsets.

A.     Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh (Romans 8:5)

            The word “flesh” in the Bible can be used in several different ways, depending on the context.  Sometimes it simply refers to our human bodies.  In Luke 24, Jesus said to Thomas after his resurrection, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself.  Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”  (Luke 24:39).  This is my flesh.

            But most of time that the word “flesh” is used, and especially with the apostle Paul, he’s not talking about the physical part of our body.  Rather, he’s talking about the self-centered part of us.  In Galatians 5:24, Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  Now compare that with Galatians 2:20 where Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…”

            In Galatians 5, Paul says the flesh is crucified.  In chapter 2, he says, “I” am crucified, and it’s no longer me who gets to decide what to do, it’s Christ.  When you boil it down, there’s really only two alternatives – either you can do your best to do what God wants you to do, or you can say, “I don’t really care what God says, I’m going to do what I want to do.”  The basic mark of the flesh is that it is not submissive to God.  It does not want to submit itself to God’s absolute authority. 

            And that’s what Paul means when he talks about the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5.  Those works include sins that we might categorize as sensual (immorality, impurity, drunkenness); but they also include worshiping false gods, strife, jealousy, and anger.  To live according to the flesh is to live independently of God, to live the way you want to live, to live fulfilling your own desires. 

            And Paul makes it clear that living “according to the flesh” has to do with our mindset, or how we think.  Those who are not Christians set their minds on the things of the flesh which means that’s what they think about.  That’s what they constantly think about – what will give me what I want?

            Now, this may obvious, but I think we sometimes overlook it.  And the reason I think that is because I hear so many Christians express shock and outrage at the moral climate of our country.  You’ve heard it, and maybe even said it:

  • I can’t believe the kind of anger and hatred I see on Facebook.
  • I can’t get over how many people believe homosexuality is OK.
  • I can’t believe that so many people are mistreated because of their race or the color of their skin.
  • I can’t believe the kind of vulgar language that people are using in public
  • I can’t believe that sex is treated so casually.
  • What’s wrong with our government? Why don’t they uphold Christian values?

            And whenever I hear statements like that, I feel like saying, “Do you seriously expect non-Christians to behave like Christians?”  Think about it.  There are very few people in this country who actually believe in the authority of scripture, who have made a commitment to follow Jesus Christ.  So why would we expect people who are not Christians to behave like Christians?Why would we expect people who don’t even profess to be Christians to:

  • Wait until marriage to have sex?
  • To clean up their language?
  • To be celibate when they’re attracted to people of the same sex?
  • To take a stand against abortion?
  • To always tell the truth?

            Seriously.  Why?  They’re not Christians. Why would they adopt Christian values or morals?  Paul says that those who are not Christians set their minds on the things of the flesh which means that’s what they think about – what will give me what I want?

            Living according to flesh means to have a mindset of the flesh, to live for the temporal things that this world values, with total disregard for God and eternity.

B.     Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5)

            Setting your mind on the things of the Spirit doesn’t mean that you go around with your head in the clouds, detached from everyday matters. It doesn’t mean that you have to join a monastery and spend hours every day in meditation and prayer.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t get your hands dirty with mundane things like going to work, paying bills, cleaning the house, fixing meals, mowing your lawn, or reading the newspaper.

            Rather, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means that you are submissive to God, and that you relate everything in your life to God and his Word.

            In Colossians 2, Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

            To set your mind on the things of the Spirit means that you think often about God.  It means that you worship God, that you commune with him on a regular basis.

            But the Bible also talks a lot about a lot of practical, down-to-earth matters.  Later in Colossians 3, Paul goes on to talk about sex, greed, anger, abusive speech, and truthfulness.  He gives us some practical commands regarding relationships, marriage, child-rearing, and work. In other places, the Bible says a lot about how to manage our money, how to deal with the trials of life, how to relate to government officials, and many other practical matters.

            So, again, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit simply means that you relate everything in your life to God and His Word.  It means to develop a biblical worldview, where you think about and process all of life through a spiritual lens.

            And at the very heart of this process is how you think.  Paul makes it clear that the way a person thinks is closely related to the way he lives, whether he is in Christ and in the Spirit, or in the flesh and in sin.  What a person thinks about will influence the direction of his life.

            And so we all need to ask ourselves the question – Do I set my mind on the things of the Spirit or on the things of the flesh?  Do I spend time every day asking, “How can I do this in a way that will honor God?  How can I go through this check-out line in a way that honor God?  How can I talk to my boss in a way that will honor God?  How can I spend time with my family in a way that will honor God?  How can I communicate on Facebook in a way that honor God?

            Because if we do not consciously set our minds to ask ourselves that question over and over, then we will find ourselves falling into a habit of asking, “How can I do this in a way that will give me the most pleasure?  How can I do this in a way that will make my life easier?”  If we do not make a concerted, consistent effort to develop a spiritual mindset, then the mind of the flesh will take over.

            So, we’ve seen that there are two groups and only two groups of people in the world: There are unbelievers who live according to the flesh, who set their minds on the things of the flesh.  And there are Christians who live according to the Holy Spirit, who set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  Then, thirdly,

3.     These two distinct groups are destined for two completely different outcomes.

            “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”  (Romans 8:6)

            When Sueanne and I lived in Boone up in the mountains, it was very common for us to see a sign indicating a spot called the Eastern Continental Divide.  For those of you who may not be familiar with this term, it describes not one particular spot, but a line stretching from northern Pennsylvania all the way down to southern Florida.  Through North Carolina and Virginia, this line runs along the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains and it divides the Eastern United States into two different watersheds.

            Theoretically speaking, if you were to stand right on the continental divide facing south with two glasses of water in your hands and you poured out the glass in your left hand, if that water didn’t evaporate or have its flow stopped in some other way, it would make its way hundreds of miles into the Atlantic Ocean.  And if you poured out the water from the glass in your right hand, that water would make its way hundreds of miles into the Gulf of Mexico.  Which side of that Divide that water falls on determines where that water will eventually end up


            Here in Romans 8, Paul says there is a Continental Divide in our spiritual lives – there is a dividing line that determines where we will eventually end up.  And the dividing line that Paul identifies is our mindset.  What do we think about?  What voice do we listen to when we decide what we’re going to do in life?”  And Paul says you can tell where a person is headed by what they have set their mind on.

            Remember, Paul says that there are only two ways of thinking, two ways of living your life. You can live with your mind focused on the flesh or you can live with your mind focused on the Spirit.  You can live your life focused on things that are physical and don’t last very long, or you can live your life focused on things that are spiritual and last forever.

            The flesh and the spirit is like a great continental divide.  If I choose the Spirit, then my life will head in this direction.  Every day, I will become a little more Christlike.  More and more I come to be holy as my God is holy.  It is a life that has steady progress toward God so that the final transition of death is only a natural and inevitable stage along the way.  It’s like Enoch who walked with God and God took him.  Or, as one little child put it, Enoch was a man who went on walks with God – and one day he didn’t come back.”  I love that!

            The alternative, though, is to choose the flesh.  Listen to how Paul described some folks like this in Philippians 3:19, “…whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things.”

            And if I choose the flesh, then my life will head in this direction.  And I will spend more and more time making decisions based on the things that make me happy, on the things that will give me the most pleasure, I will find that every day, I look a little less like Jesus Christ.  I will become more and more selfish, more and more self-centered.

            And as we stand on this great continental divide of our spiritual lives, if I choose the flesh, then my life will head in this direction.  Paul’s warning is that you’re not going to like where that water is going to eventually end up.  Because it leads to death, spiritual death, separation from God. 

            But following the things of the Spirit will always lead to life and peace.

Conclusion:

            So this question for you this morning is — Are you living according to the flesh, or are you living according to the Spirit?  What’s your mindset?  What do you think about?  Because you will not accidentally live according to the Spirit.  You have to make a concerted effort.  And if you don’t, there’s only one alternative.  It’s the “default” way of living.

            And what we will find is that if we live out our lives thinking first about me and what will make me happy and what will keep me comfortable, I will never be able to fit God into my life.  But if I think first about God, and I live according to the Spirit, and I allow his Spirit to guide me, and I constantly ask, “How can I do this in a way that will bring honor to God?”,  then everything else will fit in.

            Which is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33).

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