Romans 8: Distractions

 

“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.” – Romans 8:5-6


I first wrote these meditations in the early months of the COVID pandemic when everyone was isolated at home, and it struck me how much I and other brothers and sisters needed to meditate deeply upon God’s word. Essentially, I was attempting to help my church and anyone else who would read these do precisely what Paul says Christians do in Romans 8:5 - setting our minds on the things of the Spirit. Even now, this reminds me of a famous sermon C.S. Lewis preached in Oxford in 1939, right at the outset of WW2 and during the German blitzkrieg where German bombs were continually dropping on England day and night. Lewis, asking what should students do in the midst of such turmoil, when the world was seemingly coming to an end, answered thus:

“The peculiar difficulty imposed on you by the war is another matter, and of it I would again repeat what I have been saying in one form or another ever since I started—do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your predicament more abnormal than it really is. Perhaps it may be useful to mention the three mental exercises which may serve as defenses against the three enemies which war raises up against the scholar.

The first enemy is excitement—the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.   

Favorable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that only superhuman self-control could resist it. They come both in war and peace. We must do the best we can.”

In essence, Lewis maintains that we should give our minds and effort to business as usual, as best we can. I think this is right in line with what Paul is getting at in Romans 8, verses 5-6. No matter the situation or context, no matter the “craziness” going on around us, the Christian is that person who sets themselves to still thinking about and focusing on the things of the Spirit. Are there distractions? Yes! There will always be distractions – some certainly greater than others. But perhaps it is our focus on God in the midst of distraction which is so necessary for our growth and faith and life. Isn’t this what Paul says in verse 6?

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”, to which I want to hasten and add “especially in times when distractions are screaming at us to focus our attention elsewhere!” In other words, I want to give a bit of an apology (a defense) of why these meditations on Romans 8 are so needed. If you’re anything like me, your heart and mind is dizzy with thinking about the blitzkrieg that is our 24-hour news machine – be it through the older channels of legacy media or the wild, wild west of social media – there is never a let up in new stories which seem to have some kind of apocalyptic grandeur. Oh, dear friends, amid the unceasing “breakers and waves” (Ps. 42:7) of worrying news, find “life and peace” here in God’s word, given to us by His Spirit. This is setting our minds on the Spirit.

If you’re reading this and you’re thinking, “I’m not at all moved or encouraged or comforted by reading Romans 8, or any of God’s word for that matter.” Well then verses 5 and 6 still apply to you. Paul states explicitly that the evidence of being spiritually dead is an inability to set your mind and go after the things of the Spirit. Reading the Word of God is the last thing you want to do, and even when you do read it, it makes no sense; it has no effect upon your thinking.

Friends, if that’s you, you very well may still be “dead in your sins and trespasses” (Ephesians 2:1). You’re unregenerate and still opposed to God in your sinful rebellion. And if that concerns you – and I pray it does – then you should pray right now and ask God to take away your heart of stone and to give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Ask God to work within you, by His Spirit, and give you new desires for the things of God, to believe in and rely upon Jesus Christ. In keeping with Paul’s emphasis here in Romans, by believing in Jesus you then become one with Jesus. That’s the good news Paul wants you to know about Jesus: He is your life, righteousness, and peace before God (1 Corinthians 1:30).[1] But if you’re not in Jesus then the Spirit of Jesus is not in you and therefore you are still operating in the flesh, which “to set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, commenting on Romans 8:6 says, “that to be spiritually minded, or to have the mind of the Spirit, is life. It is a proof of the fact that we have life, spiritual life. [The unbeliever] has no interest in spiritual things because he is dead. You preach to him, you get him to read the Scriptures, but it makes no impression upon him. Why? Because he is dead; it is as if he were not there at all. He hears the same truth as the Christian who glories in it, but this man sees nothing in it. It does not move him, or affect him, or rouse him, or please him. He is dead to it.”[2]

To be sure, Christians walk through valleys of apathy and often experience a lack of zeal. This is why Paul actually commands Christians, later in Romans 12:11 to “not be slothful in zeal, but be fervent in spirit, in serving the Lord.” In other words, we need to work at and give ourselves to regular means of grace which will stir up within us a greater desire for the things of the Spirit. The Apostle Peter says as much in 2 Peter 1:3-10; his whole encouragement to Christians is to act in such a way that our hearts are stirred up to greater affection for Jesus, and so he says, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”

Thus, we come full circle. In these precarious days of nonstop distraction (continuous news, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Netflix, Amazon Prime, whatever) I do pray that all of God’s people are all the more diligent as we give ourselves to setting our minds on the things of the Spirit. This means we must read God’s word and pray with our families and churches. We need to be singing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. All of these are the qualities which emerge out of being filled with God’s Spirit but they’re qualities which we desire to grow in and practice. This is behind Paul’s use of language on where we set our minds.

All people have mindsets and habits of the mind and inevitably our minds will be set upon certain interests, be they heavenly and of the Spirit, or worldly and of the flesh. As John Murray describes it, “to mind the things of the flesh is to have the things of the flesh as the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection, and purpose.”[3] Ask yourself: where does my mind go when I’m allowed to just think and daydream? It’s a good diagnostic question.[4] Paul says you can tell what a man is by how he thinks and what he thinks about, and if his mind is set on the things of the flesh, then his warning, no, his promise is that that man is spiritually dead. He has the aroma of death about him. Conversely, the mind that is set on the Spirit, or to be Spiritually-minded, is life and peace. I close with insights from the great Princetonian, Charles Hodge:

“Therein consists the true life and blessedness of the soul. This being the case, there can be no such thing as salvation in sin; no possibility of justification without sanctification. If partakers of the benefits of Christ’s death, we are partakers of his life. If we died with him, we live with him. This is pertinent to the apostle’s main object in this chapter, which is to show that believers never can be condemned. They are not only delivered from the law, and justified by the blood of Christ, but they are partakers of his life. They have the mind set on the Spirit, which is life and peace.”[5]



[1] Sinclair Ferguson, in his magisterial book The Whole Christ writes “Note that the vast preponderance of New Testament passages speak of our getting "into Christ" and not of "getting Christ into us." There is a massively greater stress on being "in Christ" than there is on how Christ indwells us, important though this latter emphasis is. This gives rise to the suggestion that the undergirding theological emphasis is that our need is to "get out of ourselves and into Christ" rather than "get Christ into ourselves." While there is a proper duality to be maintained (we are "in Christ," and, by the Spirit, Christ dwells "in us") the fundamental dynamic is centrifugal rather than centripetal. In the light of this, it is probably a fair criticism of post seventeenth-century evangelicalism that the "Christ in us" motif played a greater role than the "we are in Christ" perspective and thereby contributed to an imbalance of the subjective orientation over the objective orientation and the indwelling over the fundamental union. Paradoxically, therefore, evangelicalism, on its pietistic side (the adjective is used here in a technical rather than an emotive sense), became fertile soil for elements reminiscent of Schleiermacher's emphasis on the importance of the subjective "feeling" of the Christian, in distinction from the rational and intellectual aspects of the gospel. What was sometimes (often?) lost sight of was the biblical (not merely "academic" or "intellectual") principle that spiritual transformation takes place through the renewal of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2)” Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance―Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Crossway, 2016), p. 49n22.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

 

[2] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 8.5-17, The Sons of God, (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001) p. 31

[3] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 285

[4] A question I’ve heard Sinclair Ferguson ask many times in different sermons. He deserves credit for this probing diagnostic.

[5] Charles Hodge, Romans (Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), p. 256

 

Stephen Unthank

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