Romans 8: The Quandary

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  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, 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.  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 8:1-5

Can I encourage you to read back through (perhaps even try and memorize) verses 1-4? The truths which Paul lays out here are life-giving truths. I have found that in the midst of severe temptation these passages provide a wonderful springboard in my prayer toward and reliance upon God. Racked with thoughts of fear, or anger, or lust, or envy, O how good it is to be reminded that I am not condemned by God in Christ Jesus. And if that’s true – and it is for all who trust in Jesus – than I don’t have to hide from God; no, in fact, I’m motivated to run to God and ask him for help. And so the Christian prays, “Lord, help me now to walk according to the Spirit. I admit, I want to sin. But Lord, I also admit that I want to want to obey you more. Help me, please. Fulfill in me, by the power of the Spirit of Christ, the righteous requirements of the law. Help me resist temptation, Lord. Help me grow in holiness as I grow in my love for you and your Holiness. I pray all this in the name of Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.”

This is why Paul is writing Romans 8. He himself, wretched man that he is (Romans 7:24), intimately knows the battle that rages between the Spirit and the flesh. It’s a battle which all Christians face. And so, he writes to not only inform us but to help us, to direct our hearts towards God who alone can give us the freedom we need from sins enslaving power. This is why we’re reminded in verse 5 that “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.”

He’s laying out here the diametrically opposed lifestyles of those who live according to the flesh (a.k.a., unbelievers) verses those who live according to the Spirit (a.k.a., believers). First, what does Paul mean by the word flesh? Well, he doesn’t mean the material substance of our bodies, i.e., our skin, muscle, blood and bones. No, he means here the whole of a fallen person’s corrupt orientation toward sin and rebellion which necessarily controls, as under a law, what we do in our flesh. As Martin Luther so famously put it in his Lectures on Romans, “Scripture describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.”[1]

John Owen, in his detailed study of indwelling sin, describes the flesh as an “inbred law [that] must needs be effectual... such is the law of sin. It is an indwelling law: ‘It is sin that dwells in me’ (Rom. 7:17, 20); ‘It is present with me’ (Rom. 7:21); ‘It is in my members’ (Rom. 7:23) – yea, it is so far in man, as in some sense it is said to be man himself; ‘I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing’ (Rom. 7:18). The flesh, which is the seat and throne of this law, yea, which indeed is this law, is in some sense the man himself... an indwelling law inclining and moving to sin as an inward habit or principle.”[2]  The flesh then is Paul’s word to describe the state of every fallen human being as sinfully self-centered and dominated by rebellion.[3]  “The works of the flesh are evident,” says the Apostle Paul. They are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Here’s the quandary, and it’s a big one: though Christians are no longer condemned for their inclinations and in fact are made free from the power of sinful flesh (vs. 4), nonetheless, we still carry around the flesh and its powerful proclivities with us! We’re not completely free, at least not yet. Read back through that list and honestly assess yourself – do you not see evidences of those sins in your life even now? The truth is we’re only free in an inaugurated way as we await the full redemption of our bodies in glory. There, in glory, sin will not only not reign, it won’t even exist! God will not resurrect corruption, be it physical or spiritual. But until that great Day arrives believers have, as it were, a mixture of both the fallen flesh and renewed spirit. As Paul writes in Galatians 5:17, for the regenerate believer “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.”

And so Paul wants us to see that during our sojourn here, the contrast of a life now controlled by the Holy Spirit versus a life under the control of the flesh is the main divergence, it’s the delineating distinction between life and death. As Owen writes elsewhere, “These two do constitute two states of mankind, unto the one of which every individual person in the world doth belong; and it is of the highest concernment unto the souls of men to know whether of them they appertain unto.”[4]

The key insight in this grand delineation between flesh and Spirit, between faith and rebellion, is the place of the mind; or better still, the focus of our mind. He’ll elaborate on the place of the mind on verses 6-8. But for now, notice that Paul says that how a person lives is determined by what they set their minds upon. A person’s lifestyle, his choices, mannerisms, habits, and conversation are all set by an inward power, what Paul calls here the mind. And all people set their minds on either the flesh or the Spirit. That’s the difference. There’s no third option, no neutral middle ground – we all find ourselves living out one or the other of these two mindsets.

It's true, isn’t it, that people think a lot about what they value and want and desire, and that this thinking, or this setting-of-their-minds-upon, patterns the way in which they live.[5] The man whose mind is set upon the flesh, with all of its ungodly wants, lives according to what he so desires. As Jesus tells us in Luke 12:34, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And the converse is true as well – where your heart is, you can see what it is you treasure!

But we must remember that we cannot by our own strength or ability change this inward reality. It is only the sovereign grace of God in giving men and women new hearts that this change can come about. And as we’ve already seen, the believer is someone who is made new by the Holy Spirit (see especially John 3:6-8). He’s someone who is now being conformed into the image of Christ and as such his mind is more and more being set upon the things of Christ, precisely because he now desires Christ and “the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14).

The Christian then is that man or woman dominated in his heart, soul, mind, and strength with God and his relationship to God. By walking in the Spirit and setting his mind on the things of the Spirit, he is reorienting his entire life, his whole being, to being ruled by the Spirit and in conformity to the holiness and wisdom of the Spirit. Practically speaking, what does this look like? How do we know how to “set our minds” upon the things of the Spirit?

First, by reading the Spirit given (that is, inspired) words of Scripture! One of the greatest pieces of evidence of someone coming to true faith in Jesus Christ and now having the Holy Spirit within them is that there is a new desire to read the Bible and to know more and more about God through His word. This is exactly what the Apostle Peter encourages new believers to do in 1 Peter 2:1-3. “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for [that is, have a desire for] the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Do you want to set your minds more and more upon the things of the Spirit? Friends, meditate day and night on the living and active words of the Spirit. They will change you and sanctify you and mature you in your walk.

This is especially important since our ever-present flesh is continually exerting upon us our old sin-skewered desires and moving to bring us back into our old habits. But when we take in the living and active Word of God and it gets applied within us by the power of the Spirit of God, the result is that we’re better able and equipped to resist the flesh. Or as Paul will later write, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

Secondly, the Spiritual man is not only a man who desires to hear from God as he reads his Bible but he’s also a praying man. The yearning of his heart is to be in greater communion with God and in prayerful prayer (James 5:17) finding ever more encouragement and strength from God. Especially as we still wrestle with temptation and the still lingering desires of our fallen flesh, the spiritual person sets his mind on the things of the Spirit and so he asks God for help in that daily battle. Isn’t this what Paul will argue down in Romans 8 verses 12-16? “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (vs. 15). Paul is clear: the spiritual person is a praying person, whose prayers cry out to God as their intimate Father.

As Paul wrote earlier to the Galatian church, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Indeed, and let us do so with our minds continually set upon the things of the Spirit.

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.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 345, see also pp. 291-92

[2] John Owen, The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2006), pp. 245-246

[3] John Stott, The Message of Romans (InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 222

[4] John Owen, Grace and Duty Of Being Spiritually Minded, Declared and Practically Improved (Banner of Truth, Works of John Owen, volume 7, 2009), p. 267

[5] David G. Peterson, Romans: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Lexham Academic, 2020), p. 311


Stephen Unthank