Our family was on vacation during the fuel crisis a number of years ago when we ran short of fuel in a remote western part of the United States. In the small town where we found it necessary to spend the night, only one motel was available, and my children still laugh about the night we spent in the Alpine Lodge. Our room had no private bath; the bathroom down the hall had saloon-type doors one could see over and under. The flashing red neon sign outside our windows illuminated our room all through the night. Downstairs we checked in at the bar of a tavern. At that bar sat a man well under the influence of already-consumed liquor. I could not help but overhear the man’s conversation with the bartender. This drunken man was actually witnessing to the bartender about his need to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. Imagine a drunk telling a sober bartender he needed to get saved!
A radical change is expected and required when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ. When no change becomes apparent, we begin to wonder if there has been a genuine conversion or if the one who was truly saved understands God’s Word concerning sanctification and discipleship. Charles Colson, in his excellent book, Loving God, entitles one of his chapters, “A Christian Gangster?” Gangster Mickey Cohen had made a profession of faith, and it was hoped that he had sincerely come to faith in Jesus Christ. Time evidenced that Mr. Cohen wanted to continue to live as a gangster with the assurance that he would go to heaven when he died. For a man like Cohen, genuine conversion to Christianity would require some radical changes in his mindset, motivation, and methods.
That change is both necessary and radical for anyone who comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The libertine extreme seeks to minimize the change which is required, wanting to avoid any rules or commands. They want to speak only of grace and not of righteousness or God’s Law. They want to continue to live in sin just as they did as unbelievers. This view is described and rejected in Romans 6. The legalist, on the other hand, wants to bury the convert to Christ with rules and regulations. He does speak of righteousness and holiness, but of the kind men define which is accomplished by human effort and not divine enablement. Paul discusses this point of view in Romans 7, showing legalism to be both sinful and impossible.
In Romans 6, Paul tells us that righteousness is required of those who have been justified by faith. Those who have died to sin must no longer continue to live in sin. They must no longer present their bodies to sin, but must present their bodies to God as instruments of righteousness. Paul shares in Romans 7 from his own experience as he shows that living a righteous life is humanly impossible. The Law is not the problem, for the “Law is holy, righteous, and good.” The problem is the weakness of our flesh. Unaided by God, the best a Christian can do is to serve God with his mind but to serve sin with his flesh. Great agony over this condition causes the Christian to cry out to God who alone can deliver him from the body which is dead with respect to achieving righteousness.
Chapter 7 ends with a very desperate cry for deliverance and a brief summary of the nature of that deliverance: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25).
Paul will explain in Romans 8 the nature of God’s provision for our deliverance. The words of our text in verses 1-17, along with those which follow in chapter 8, are some of the most encouraging words in all of the Bible.
“Spenner is reported to have said that if holy Scripture was a ring, and the Epistle to the Romans its precious stone, chap. viii. would be the sparkling point of the jewel!”171
Those who can identify with the agony of Paul in Romans 7 will rejoice with him in the ecstasy of Romans 8. Do you desire to serve God and to obey His commands and yet find it impossible to do so? If not, then you should go back to the beginning of Romans and start reading again. Either you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, you fail to understand what God requires, or you do not see the futility and inadequacy of merely human effort. But if you have come to that point of despair of which Paul speaks, then you have come to the point of dependence upon God. Read on, my friend. There is more good news for you. The solution to your problem is now the topic under discussion in Romans 8.
Let us look to the Holy Spirit, of whom theses verses speak, to enlighten our minds concerning those things which we would never grasp apart from His divine illumination (see 1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
Romans 8 may be seen as falling into three distinct but closely related segments. Verses 1-27 describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit in relationship to the believer. The sovereignty of God is stressed in verses 28-30. Verses 31-39 contain Paul’s spontaneous outburst of praise in response to the security of the saint and the certainty of God’s purposes and promises.
In our text the following structure can be observed:
The Holy Spirit, God’s Provision for (1) escape from condemnation, and (2) enablement to fulfill the Law
The necessity of walking in the Spirit, rather than walking in the flesh
Why walking in the flesh cannot please God
Why walking in the Spirit will please God
Paul’s words of application
To better understand our text in Romans 8:1-17, it may prove helpful to make a few overall observations concerning the Book of Romans, this chapter, and its larger context.
(1) Romans is a logical, systematic treatment of the gospel. In this epistle, Paul deals with the gospel in terms of its necessity, its basis, its nature, and its outworkings. Paul is not writing to a church he has founded or visited, but to a church he hopes to visit in the future. He is not writing to address and correct specific problems but to provide this group with a solid foundation, a foundation for their Christian lives and for his future ministry among them.
(2) Romans is the most systematic treatment of the doctrine of the spiritual life in all of the New Testament. Thus, what Paul includes and what he omits in this epistle must be taken very seriously in terms of what is important to the Christian life.
(3) Paul’s teaching is based on the assurance of the salvation of the saint, their possession of the Spirit and the certainty of their sanctification. Paul does not try to motivate the Christian to trust and obey out of doubt or fear but out of confidence, assurance and gratitude for what God has done and will do. The mood throughout is that of the certainty of the saint based on the sovereignty of God (see 8:1, 9, 11, 15-17, 28-39).
(4) The Holy Spirit is the prominent subject and the most prominent person of the Godhead in this chapter.172 While there has already been considerable attention given to the flesh prior to chapter 8, there have been very few references to the Holy Spirit. This chapter is, by far, the most concentrated teaching on the Holy Spirit in the Book of Romans. The term “spirit,” which can refer either to man’s spirit or to the Holy Spirit, occurs only four times in Romans before chapter 8 (1:4; 2:29; 5:5; 7:6). Of these four previous occurrences of the term “spirit” in Romans 1-7, one instance is a clear reference to a man’s human spirit (Romans 1:4). The second reference (2:29) is debatable. The third reference (5:5) is a rather clear reference to the Holy Spirit. The use of “Spirit” in Romans 7:6 is somewhat debatable as well (capitalized in the NASB, but with a footnote with the alternative rendering, “spirit”).
In Romans 8, the term “spirit” occurs 18 times in the NASB and 19 times in the King James Version (see the translation of Romans 8:1 in the King James Version for an additional use of the term). This term occurs but 7 more times in Romans 9-16 (9:1; 11:8; 14:17; 15:13, 16, 19, 30). Thus, the term “Spirit” or “spirit” occurs in chapter 8 over 60% of the time when it is used by Paul in Romans.
(5) The Holy Spirit is God’s provision for holy living in the life of the Christian. The Holy Spirit is the answer to the problem of the Christian’s “body of death,” a body dominated by sin and dead with respect to producing any work which is righteous, according to the definition of the Law of God. Romans 8 deals with the ministry of the Holy Spirit pertaining to the salvation and sanctification of an individual. It is in Romans 12 that Paul approaches the subject of the ministry of the Holy Spirit for service and ministry when the subject of spiritual gifts is addressed. Why do some want to talk of the gifts of the Spirit in relationship to salvation and to sanctification when Paul does not even raise the subject of spiritual gifts until it comes to the matter of serving others?
(6) Every Christian receives all of the Spirit he or she needs, at the time of their salvation. Nowhere does Paul say that the Romans need to receive the Holy Spirit, nor receive more of the Spirit, as though they did not possess the Spirit. The question is not whether the Christian possesses the Spirit but whether the Spirit possesses the Christian. The question is not having the Spirit but walking in the Spirit.
(7) The ministry of the Holy Spirit is diverse, affecting virtually every aspect of one’s life. There is not just one ministry of the Holy Spirit described here by Paul, but many. The Spirit is involved in our salvation (8:1-2) and in our sanctification (8:3ff.). The Spirit initiates, guides and empowers our actions, so that the righteousness God requires is fulfilled (8:9-14). He also assures us of our sonship, as the Spirit of adoption (8:15ff.).
(8) In Romans 8 there is very little specific (some would call it “practical”) application given by Paul. Paul does not give commands, but exhortations. He speaks here in terms of the Christian’s obligations. His teaching is more in terms of principles than specific practices. His application likewise (see verses 12-17) is general. I find it most interesting that Paul has chosen to separate (for good reason) his teaching on the spiritual life in Romans 6-8 from his specific applications in chapters 12-16.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
Paul’s condition, as described in the last half of Romans 7, was agonizing and frustrating. With his mind, he served God, but with his flesh he served the law of sin (7:25). Paul’s dilemma is two-fold. First, there is the matter of his sins, committed as a Christian. Second, there is the problem of righteousness. What can deliver him from his sins? What can enable him to be righteous? Verses 1-4 deal primarily with the first problem and briefly allude to the second, discussed more fully in verses 5-11.
Paul’s first problem was that of his sin and of the condemnation which sin brings upon sinners. The solution to the problem of sin Paul describes here may be summarized in this way: For all who are in Christ, by faith, there is no condemnation for sin, but rather the condemnation of sin in the flesh.
Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:1-4 is fundamental to the Christian life. The Christian need not be overcome by guilt or by fear, due to his sins. The cross of Jesus Christ is the solution from sin and its condemnation, for all who are justified by faith. The death which Christ died was for all of the sins of the one who receives His work, by faith. Pre-Christian sins and post-conversion sins are covered by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. This is no license to sin, as Paul shows in Romans 6, but it is the assurance that through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ Christians have been delivered from divine condemnation. The forgiveness of sins Paul describes in Romans 3:21–4:25 applies to all the sins of the one who trusts in Christ.
There is no condemnation! What a wonderful truth to the ears of every believer. But there is more. The death of Christ has delivered us from condemnation. While our Lord’s death at Calvary delivered us from condemnation, it also delivered sin to condemnation. In Christ, God condemned sin. God condemned sin in the flesh. The flesh was sin’s stronghold. It was the “handle” which sin found by which to lay hold of us and to bring us under condemnation. When God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, He came in the flesh. He came in the likeness of sinful flesh.173 And when He suffered the wrath of God and the penalty of death in the flesh, sin was condemned in the flesh. In that very realm of the flesh, in which it seemed sin could not be defeated, God overpowered sin, condemning it in the flesh. Because of Jesus Christ, we are not condemned. Because of Him, sin is condemned, and in the flesh. For the Christian, the shackles of sin are surely broken.
Paul’s first problem is that of sin and its consequences. The second problem is that of righteousness. The sin which Paul wished to avoid, he committed, in the flesh. The righteousness which Paul desired to practice, Paul avoided, due to his flesh. The problem was with his flesh. With his mind he could serve God, but in his flesh he could not produce the fruit of righteousness. If sin dominated him through his flesh, then something greater than him must empower him to live righteously in his fleshly body. The solution is the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The problem was not with the Law and its requirement. The “Law is holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). The flesh is simply not able to achieve what the Law requires (for reasons Paul is about to spell out in 8:5-8). The Holy Spirit is able to empower us to do that which the Law required (8:4). The righteousness of God is accomplished, not by walking according to the flesh, but rather by walking according to the Spirit. God’s righteousness cannot be achieved by the flesh, but it can be accomplished by means of the Spirit of God. Paul is soon to explain how and why this is so.
The foundation for Christian living, living righteously, has been laid in verses 1-4. The Christian is not under condemnation because he is in Christ Jesus, who bore the penalty for all our sins. Sin is under condemnation, through the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. The righteousness which the Law requires and which we find impossible to achieve, God achieves in and through the Christian, through the prompting of and power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ and through the Holy Spirit, God has delivered us from the penalty and the power of sin.
The truth Paul gives in verse 4, which he explains in verses 5-11, is not new. Centuries earlier, the Lord told the prophet Zechariah: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
God’s work is never accomplished by human effort but only by divine enablement. It has always been this way.
The righteousness which the Law requires cannot be realized by walking according to the flesh, but only by walking according to the Spirit. Verses 5-11 are devoted to explaining and illustrating this truth, so that Christians will forsake seeking to please God by means of the flesh and walk according to the Spirit. Verses 5-11 give us two sides of one coin. Verses 5-8 explain why it is impossible to please God by means of the flesh. Verses 9-11 explain why it is possible to please God by means of His Spirit.
5 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. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
The futility of walking according to the flesh is spelled out in these verses. The conclusion to Paul’s argument, developed in verses 5-8, is stated in verse 8:
The basis for this conclusion is developed in verses 5-7. Here, Paul gives us three reasons why it is impossible for those in the flesh to please God. Let us consider each of these reasons.
First, those who are174 “according to the flesh” have their minds set on the flesh. They have a one-track mind. They are like an AM radio which can receive only signals on this band. FM signals are not received and cannot be. The spiritual dimension of life—that unseen realm which is only grasped by the enablement of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-16) and which can only be believed by faith (Hebrews 11:1)—is only perceived by those who are in the realm of the Spirit, by faith in Jesus Christ. Those who are “according to the Spirit” have their minds tuned to the things of God and to His Spirit.175
If a Christian is walking “according to the flesh,” his mind will not be on spiritual things but only on earthly things. When Peter rebuked our Lord for speaking of His death on the cross, our Lord rebuked him for having his mind set on the flesh:
“Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mark 8:33).
Jesus’ words here also make it evident that Peter’s fleshly mindset was a reflection of Satan’s views and values.
In verse 6 Paul gives the second reason why those who are in the flesh cannot please God. “For the mind set on the flesh is death, while the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” It took me a long time to take the verb is seriously. Elsewhere Paul tells us that sin leads to death, and righteousness leads to life. Here Paul says that the mind set on the flesh is death. There is a significant difference between that which leads to death and that which is, in and of itself, death.176 God’s wrath is both present (Romans 1:18) and future (Romans 2:5). God’s salvation likewise has a past, present and a future dimension (Romans 5:1-11). So too death is both present and future. Death is much more than physical death. Death is separation from God. The fleshly mind is so alienated from God that those whose minds are set on the flesh are dead, alienated from God, limited only to the physical world and their distorted perception of it.
Third, those who are in the flesh are not merely ignorant of God and unaware of His existence; they are actively hostile toward God and toward His Law (verse 7). Fallen men hate God, they reject His authority, and they resist His Word:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Those who are unsaved are “in the flesh,” and as those in the flesh they serve Satan, in mind and body. They may not consciously serve Satan, but they do consciously seek to indulge their flesh, fulfilling its lusts. And in so doing, they reject God and rebel against Him.
No wonder it is impossible for anyone to please God by walking according to the flesh. The flesh cannot and will not comprehend the things of the Spirit. The mind set on the flesh is death. The flesh hates God and rebels against His authority and His Law. And even if unsaved men wished to do right, they could not do so.
Consider these illustrations. Serving God in the flesh is like trying to manufacture sophisticated silicon computer chips in a garbage dump, rather than in a “clean room.” Pleasing God in the flesh is as impossible as trying to train a wolf to be a sheep dog. Being righteous in the power of the flesh is like trying to teach a corpse to dance. It simply cannot be done.
Now we know why Paul was not able, in the flesh, to keep God’s Law, even though in his mind he agreed with it and desired to obey it. Now we know why those who would fulfill the requirement of the Law cannot do so by walking “according to the flesh.” Let us next turn to verses 9-11, where Paul explains why those who walk according to the Spirit can fulfill the requirement of the Law and so please God.
9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10 And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you.
How different is Paul’s approach to the spiritual life from that of many today. Paul does not seek to motivate Christians by questioning their salvation or by suggesting that, by sin, they can lose it. He does not suggest that unspiritual living is the result of failing to possess the Spirit but bases his teaching on the certainty that every Christian is indwelt by the Spirit. And he does not appeal to guilt or fear but to grace and assurance. Chapters 5 and 8 especially underscore this. Paul assumes that his readers are genuine Christians. If they have been justified by faith, then they have the Spirit dwelling within. If they do not possess the Spirit, then they cannot be saved. Christians, according to Paul, do not need to receive the Spirit, but to respond to the Spirit, in faith and obedience for assurance, guidance, empowerment, and a host of other ministries.177
Paul, and every Christian, faces two problems as dealt with in our text: first, the problem of sin; second, the problem of righteousness. Our problem with sin is that we do it. Our problem with righteousness is that we do not, and cannot, do it. God solved the first problem by condemning sin in the flesh through the death of our Lord at Calvary. Now, in verses 9-11, Paul tells us how God has provided the solution for the second problem.
God’s Law reveals the standard of righteousness. The Law tells us what righteousness is like. The Christian agrees with the Law of God, that it is “holy, righteous, and good.” The problem is the strength of sin and the weakness of our flesh. As Paul has shown in verses 5-8, the flesh cannot please God. God has provided the means for Christians to live in a way that enables them to fulfill the requirement of the Law and to please God. God’s provision—for Christians only—is the power of His Holy Spirit, who indwells every Christian.
The flesh is dead, because of sin. But the Spirit178 is alive, living within us, so that righteousness will result. The Spirit, who indwells every true believer, is the same Spirit who raised the dead body of our Lord from the dead (verse 11). Our problem, as Paul says in Romans 7:24, is “the body of this death.” Our bodies, which are dead due to sin, so far as doing that which is righteous, the Spirit will raise to life, as He raised the body of our Lord to life. And so the problem of righteousness has been solved. We cannot, by the flesh, please God and do that which is righteous. We can, by means of the Spirit, fulfill the requirement of the Law and please God.
And so the two problems (1) of sin and (2) of righteousness have been solved, by God, through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. There is no condemnation for sin for all who are in Christ, by faith. Sin, on the other hand, has been condemned in the flesh. The righteousness which we could not do, because of the deadness of our fleshly bodies, God accomplishes through His Spirit, who raises dead bodies to life.
Romans 8:12-17 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,179 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.
In verses 12-17 Paul applies the principles he has just taught in verses 1-11. The application to Paul’s teaching is given in verse 12. Verses 13-17 provide the support for the application.180 Verse 17 serves both as a conclusion to verses 12-17, as well as an introduction to Paul’s next topic, sonship, suffering, and glory, discussed in verses 18-30.
Paul gives his readers no specific commands. He lays down no rules. After all, the Law has set the standard. Those things which Paul will lay down as specific applications find their biblical basis in the Law (see Romans 13:8-10). Instead, he speaks of the Christian’s obligations. Paul’s words in verse 12 inform us that we have no obligation to serve the flesh and strongly imply that we do have an obligation to serve God in the Spirit. This reiterates what he has already taught in verse 4 and explained in verses 5-11: We shall fulfill the requirement of the Law when we walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.
One thing has puzzled me as I have attempted to understand Paul’s words in verse 12: Why does he apply his teaching by speaking to his reader in terms of obligations? Why not duty? Why not obedience? Why obligations? I think I am beginning to understand what he means. We feel obligated to another only when we believe they have done something for us. “One good turn deserves another,” we say. When someone does us a favor, we feel obligated to them. When someone does us harm, we do not feel an obligation at all. Traveling overseas offers an illustration of this. When a car comes to an intersection and has to wait for a moment, a man may very well push through the crowd, get out his small array of equipment, and begin to wash your windshield. When he has finished, he hopes you will feel obligated enough to him to give him some money. We feel obligated when someone has rendered us a service.
Thus, Paul speaks of obligations. The fact is many Christians feel obligated to the flesh. This is why Paul must remind us that we have no obligation to the flesh. The flesh has done us no favors. It has acted independently of our minds, causing us to sin and to fear divine condemnation. The flesh is instrumental in our doing things of which we are now ashamed (see 6:21). We owe the flesh nothing.
Why then do we feel obligated? Why is it necessary for Paul to tell us we are not obligated to the flesh? The reason, as I understand it, is simple: even though it is not true, we feel that the flesh has performed some beneficial service for us. Let me suggest some ways Christians might come to this false conclusion.
There are those who tend toward the libertine extreme of error, supposing that God’s grace in Christ is a license to sin. They believe that once they have been justified by faith, they can continue to live as they formerly did—in sin—with no guilt or condemnation. If Christ paid the price for our sins, they reason, then why not sin all you can? The false assumption is that the pleasures of sin and the lusts of the flesh are really good. Thus, living in sin is good for the present, and the forgiveness of sins is our guarantee of heaven in the future. Those who foolishly think and behave in this way wrongly conclude that they owe the flesh something because it has been so good to them.
The legalist feels the same obligation to the flesh as does the libertine but for what seems to be the opposite reason.181 The legalist may sincerely believe he is avoiding sin and practicing righteousness, but he is doing so through the flesh and not through the Spirit. Legalism tries to fulfill God’s Law by means of human effort and not by walking in the Spirit. The scribes and Pharisees believed they were overcoming the flesh, but they only appeared to do so and this by means of the flesh. It is the outward appearance which the legalist judges and not the heart (see Luke 16:15). The outward appearance of righteousness may very well be the result of serving God in the flesh. I am reminded of a song I once heard: “Workin’ like the devil, servin’ the Lord.”
We do not owe the flesh anything. The flesh accomplishes nothing which is righteous. The flesh is subject to sin and to death. Whether the flesh produces self-indulgence or self-righteousness, it cannot please God. We owe it nothing. In fact, it is so hostile to the Spirit that we are obligated to put to death the deeds of the flesh. All too many Christians, including myself, are far too busy catering to the flesh rather than crucifying it.
Having summarized our obligations, both negatively and positively in verse 12, Paul goes on to support his exhortation with two arguments. The first argument is not new, but simply a summarization of what he has already said. The second argument is new to this chapter. The first argument has to do with the consequences of living according to the flesh or according to the Spirit (verse 13). The second introduces the doctrine of the Christian’s sonship (verses 14-17).
Verse 13 gives the first reason why we are obligated to the Spirit but not to the flesh. It all comes down to the consequences of following the one or the other. If you are living according to the flesh, you must die. “The mind set on the flesh is death” (8:6). “The wages of sin is death” (6:23). When one chooses the path of the flesh, it is a one-way street, and its destination is death. To follow the flesh leads to death as certainly as Interstate 35 North leads to Oklahoma City and beyond. I cannot go south to Houston and be on Interstate 35 North. I cannot reach righteousness and life by living according to the flesh. This is a certainty, as evident in the word “must.” “… if you are living according to the flesh, you must die” (verse 13).
Just as certainly, living by the Spirit leads to life. Paul says this in such a way that it presents us with a paradox:
If we seek to live according to the flesh, we will surely die.
If we, by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the flesh, we will live.
Paul’s words in verse 13 indicate that the Christian is to be far from passive in living out his life in the Spirit. We are not to be striving to be righteous in the strength of our flesh, but we are to be putting to death the deeds of the flesh through the Spirit. Furthermore, Paul’s words indicate not only a strong distinction between the flesh and the Spirit but an intense animosity. This is stated emphatically in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please (Galatians 5:16-17).
There is no peaceful co-existence with the flesh. We will either walk according to the Spirit or according to the flesh. If we walk in the Spirit, we will wage war against the deeds of the flesh which seek to dominate and destroy us. We must take this struggle seriously. We must choose sides. We dare not choose the flesh. We are obligated to walk according to the Spirit. Therein is righteousness, life and peace.
There is yet another reason for our obligation to the Spirit—our sonship as those who have been justified by faith. This sonship has both a present and a future dimension. In verses 14-16, the present dimension of our sonship is predominant. In verses 17ff., the future dimension of our sonship is in view.
In verse 11 Paul argued that those who are saved have the Holy Spirit living within them. Now in verse 14, Paul argues that all who are being led183 by the Spirit are God’s sons. Walking in the Spirit not only means walking in the power which the Spirit provides but walking in accordance with the prompting of the Spirit. As Paul has said elsewhere, “… it is God who is at work in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). From our text in Romans, we know that the Holy Spirit is God’s instrument through which this work is accomplished.
Before going further, we must pause to be certain that we understand the meaning of the expression, “son of God.” What does Paul mean when he speaks of being a “son of God”? Let us consider this expression from the context of the Bible as a whole and then go on to see how Paul is using sonship in the context of Romans 8.
Adam was “the son of God” we are told. He was the son of God in that He was the creation of God. God was, so to speak, Adam’s Father. Adam was created in the image of God and as such was commissioned to rule over God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-28). By his sin, Adam rebelled against the authority of God. He could never rule over God’s creation as a reflection of His image. There would have to be another “son of God.”
Adam and Eve lost the right to rule, but they were given the promise of deliverance through a son (Genesis 3:15). With the passage of time, it became evident that God was raising up another son—the nation Israel. At the exodus, this “son” was begotten:
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My first-born. So I said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your first-born.”’” (Exodus 4:22-23).
Paul recognized this “sonship” of Israel, and so he wrote: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons …” (Romans 9:3-4a).
The Jews had a strong sense of their sonship, but in a distorted way:
“You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God” (John 8:41).
Like Adam, the nation Israel failed to rule as God had commanded. They rebelled against God, over and over. And so God removed their right to rule. Though they claimed to be sons, they did not act like sons. There would have to be some other “son of God.”
God gave Israel a king as they requested. He gave them Saul (see 1 Samuel 8). After Saul was removed and replaced by David, the man after God’s heart, God made a covenant with David known as the Davidic Covenant. In this covenant God promised David,
“When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12-16.)
The words of verse 14, “I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me,” are very significant. The relationship between God and His appointed king was described as a father/son relationship. When the descendant of David was coronated, it was with the words, “Thou art My son” (see Psalm 2:7).186
A king from the line of David was to be the “son of God” through whom God’s rule was to be established over the whole creation. This “son” was not to be David nor would it be Solomon. Both David and Solomon sinned, as did all of their sons who reigned on the throne of David. If there was to be a “son of God,” it would be a very special “son of God” indeed. As the Old Testament revelation continued to unfold, it became evident that this “king” who was to be God’s “son” would be a very special person. He was described as being both divine (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2-5) and human (“son of man,” see Daniel 7:13-14 and also Psalm 2:7-9). Whoever this “son of God” was to be, he would be a very special and unique person. And so He was.
Adam failed as a “son of God,” as did Israel and all the kings from David on. All hopes for God’s rule on the earth focused upon the coming Messiah, the Seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15; see also Galatians 3:16), the Son of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16), the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14) and the Son of God (Psalm 2:7). The “Son of God” was not to be Israel, as a nation, but Jesus of Nazareth. And so, when Jesus was brought from Egypt to Israel by His parents, Matthew cited this text from Hosea as being fulfilled by the return of our Lord from Egypt: “Out of Egypt did I call My Son” (Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1).
Jesus was the “Son” for whom every true believer had been waiting. It is little wonder that at His baptism the Father would speak these words: “This is My beloved Son …” (Matthew 3:17).
It is also little wonder that the temptation of our Lord resembled the testing of Israel in the wilderness or that our Lord’s responses to Satan’s solicitations should come from the Book of Deuteronomy (see Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). Satan’s great effort in the temptation of our Lord was to divert Him from His role as the Son of God.
When Peter made his great confession, it was the confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised Son of God: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16).
At His transfiguration, God the Father again identified Jesus as His beloved Son (Matthew 17:5). The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus was unique in His identity and role as the “Son of God” through whom salvation would be accomplished and who would subdue the earth and rule over all creation.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they. For to which of the angels did He ever say, “THOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE”? And again, “I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM, AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME”? And when He again brings the first-born into the world, He says, “AND LET ALL THE ANGELS OF GOD WORSHIP HIM.” And of the angels He says, “WHO MAKES HIS ANGELS WINDS, AND HIS MINISTERS A FLAME OF FIRE.” But of the Son He says, “THY THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER, AND THE RIGHTEOUS SCEPTER IS THE SCEPTER OF HIS KINGDOM. THOU HAST LOVED RIGHTEOUSNESS AND HATED LAWLESSNESS; THEREFORE GOD, THY GOD, HATH ANOINTED THEE WITH THE OIL OF GLADNESS ABOVE THY COMPANIONS” (Hebrews 1:1-9).
Jesus Christ is the “Son of God” through whom all of God’s promised blessings are fulfilled. All who are justified by faith are joined with Him in an inseparable union (see Romans 6:3-11). By faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah, men may become sons of God:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
John answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Sonship, therefore comes to all of those who have a new birth, through faith in Jesus Christ.
It is to this sonship that the Holy Spirit, who indwells every Christian, bears testimony:
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:16).
We are God’s children, sons of God, by faith in the Son of God.
Our sonship has both a present and a future dimension. In verse 17, this future dimension is introduced and is the subject of Paul’s teaching in verses 18-30. While we enter into sonship by birth—the new birth—our entrance into the future blessings of sonship comes by adoption.
For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:19, 23).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the “Son of God,” but His return to the earth to subdue His enemies and to rule over all creation is yet future. Our part as sons of God is future as well. Paul speaks of this future hope in Romans 8:18-25. As Paul explains in Galatians 4:1-7, there is a time when a son is kept under guardians and managers until the time comes for him to be put in authority. This process Paul refers to as adoption. When Christ returns to the earth to rule over it, we will receive our full adoption as sons and rule with Him. It is for this future dimension of sonship that we wait in hope. Our present sonship is a marvelous blessing and privilege, but there is much more to come. The blessings of our future sonship show our present sufferings in identification with Christ to be a small thing in the light of the glory yet to come.
With this survey of what it means to be a son of God, we return to our exposition of the text. Paul begins in verse 12 to make application of his teaching by speaking to the Christian concerning his obligations. The Christian is not obligated to the flesh, but he is obligated to the Spirit. In verse 13, Paul gives the first reason for our obligation to the Spirit but not the flesh: living according to the flesh leads to death; living according to the Spirit leads to death for the deeds of the flesh, but life for us.
Verses 14-17 continue the contrast between these two ways of walking. How different they are. Walking according to the Spirit is described in verse 14 in terms of being led by the Spirit. How different this is from the way of walking in the flesh. Walking according to the flesh is slavery, and its motivation is fear (verse 15). Walking according to the Spirit is not serving a slave master but obeying our Father as He leads us by His Spirit. It is not a matter of slavery but of obedience, rooted in a deep sense of love, gratitude, and thus, obligation.
How different are these two ways of walking. When we walk according to the flesh, we serve as slaves motivated by fear. We are overpowered and overrun by it. When we walk according to the Spirit, we are led. We serve our Father out of a deep sense of obligation, not fear. We owe the flesh nothing. We owe our Father everything.
As we leave Paul’s words of application in verses 12-17, let me point out that the very spirit in which Paul applies his teaching is consistent with his teaching. The Christian’s walk according to the Spirit is a walk of obedience, based upon our obligation to God, based upon His goodness and grace to us. There are no harsh words, no dictatorial commands. Paul is not a sergeant here addressing new recruits but a brother reminding us of the goodness of our Father. God’s Spirit is a gift from the Father to every Christian. He reminds us that we are sons. He leads us and empowers us so that we may act like sons to the glory of the Father.
Sonship is a glorious position with great privileges. Sonship does not come without suffering however. If we are to identify with our Lord in His future manifestation as the Son of God, we must now identify with Him in His rejection and suffering. It is this dimension of sonship to which Paul turns in verse 17. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our struggles Paul will explain in verses 18-27, matters which we will consider in our next lesson.
I must ask you: Are you a son of God? Have you become His child by faith in the Son of God? If not, why not become His son now? All you must do is acknowledge your sin, your desperate need for the forgiveness of your sins and your need for the righteousness which God requires for eternal life. That forgiveness is found in Jesus Christ, who died in the sinner’s place, bearing the punishment of God. That righteousness is found in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness God will impute to you on the basis of faith alone, apart from any works you might do, apart from any merit of your own. To receive God’s gift of salvation in His Son is to become a son of God.
If you are a son of God by faith in Jesus Christ, this passage is foundational to your Christian life. Let me conclude by summarizing some of the major truths Paul teaches in this text and suggest some ways these truths apply to us as Christians.
(1) The Christian life is possible because our sins have been forgiven, our guilt has been removed, and God’s Spirit has been given. What was impossible for us to do as unbelievers, and even impossible for us as Christians in our own strength, is possible through the enablement of the Holy Spirit of God.
(2) The Christian life is impossible in the power of the flesh; it is possible only in the strength of the Holy Spirit. The unbeliever can only live according to the flesh by which he is enslaved. The Christian has a choice. The Christian can live in the realm of the flesh or in the realm of the Spirit. He will live in one of these two worlds. He will walk in accordance with one of these two ways—the way of the flesh or the way of the Spirit.
(3) From the Christian point of view, there is no good reason to walk according to the flesh and every reason to walk according to the Spirit. The mind set on the flesh is death. The one who walks according to the flesh must die. To walk in the Spirit is life and leads to life. To walk in the Spirit is to be assured that God is your Father, and the Spirit is your guide and your strength. To walk in the Spirit is to be assured of your present sonship and an even greater sonship in the future. We are obligated to walk according to the Spirit, but there is no obligation to walk according to the flesh.
(4) There is no middle ground between walking in the Spirit and walking in the flesh. We are either walking according to the Spirit, or we are walking according to the flesh. Many Christians seem to think there is some neutral ground.187 Jesus said it long ago: there are but two masters; we will either serve the one or the other (Matthew 6:24). We will love one and hate the other. We will live to the one and seek to put to death the other.
(5) The flesh and the Spirit share nothing in common. They are incompatible. Indeed, they are mortal enemies (see Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:17). Why is it then that one of the key words in the Christian world today is integration? For example, many are trying to integrate psychology and theology.188 Why? Is there something necessary to living righteously which God has omitted either in His Word or in His provisions for us? Peter does not think so (2 Peter 1:3-4). Neither does Paul (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
(6) The distinction between the Spirit and the flesh is fundamental and foundational in the Scriptures because it provides us with a biblical basis for separation. All too often we make distinctions but the wrong ones! For example, we distinguish between that which is “secular” and that which is “spiritual.” Herein lies the false assumption that those in “full-time ministry” are working at that which is spiritual while those with “merely secular” jobs are involved in that which is not spiritual. Falsely we assume that certain activities (like prayer, worship, and Bible study) are spiritual, but others (like washing dishes, changing diapers or the oil in the car) are not.
Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 says this is wrong. Consider this principle: IT IS NOT WHAT WE DO THAT MAKES SOMETHING SPIRITUAL OR FLESHLY, BUT HOW AND WHY WE DO IT.
Whether we work at preaching, painting houses, or washing dishes the issue is whether we are doing it by means of God’s Spirit or by means of the flesh.
Some of the activities which appear most spiritual are those which can be, and often are, done in the flesh. For example, prayer can be accomplished in the flesh, or in the Spirit:
“And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:5-7).
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures (James 4:3).
But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; (Jude 20).
Preaching the gospel can be done in the flesh or in the Spirit:
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; (Philippians 1:15).
If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, (Philippians 2:1-5).
The great danger faced by the church today is not that of “secular humanism” but that of “religious humanism”—seeking to serve God and to please Him in the power of our own flesh, rather than “according to His Spirit.” There are those who would advocate that the Christian can continue to live in sin, because of God’s grace, manifested in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But the greater danger is that of appearing to be spiritual and religious in the power of the flesh. As I conclude, I want to ask you to note the strong distinction which the Scriptures make between that which is of the flesh and that which is of the Spirit. May God grant us the ability to distinguish the two and to choose to walk according to the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the flesh.
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void. For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts. And such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:1-6).
Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life (Jude 17-21).
172 The Holy Spirit is referred to approximately 29 times in the Book of Romans. One cannot be more definite about this number because the King James Version has one more reference to the Holy Spirit than the NASB, due to an additional phrase in Romans 8:1 which refers to the Holy Spirit. Also, because some references to the Holy Spirit use only the term “Spirit,” there is a difference of opinion in some instances as to whether or not the Holy Spirit is referred to (see, for example, Romans 7:6; 8:15).
These small matters in mind, we can come to a general sense of proportion as to the frequency of references to the Holy Spirit in Romans. At most, there are but 4 references to the Holy Spirit in chapters 1-7 (1:4; 2:29; 5:5; 7:6). There are 18 references to the Spirit in chapter 8, 3 references in chapters 9-14 (9:1; 11:8; 14:17), and 4 references in chapter 15 (verses 13, 16, 19, 30). Sixty-two percent of all references to the Holy Spirit are found in chapter 8.
Note that while the Holy Spirit is the most prominent person of the Godhead in these verses, His ministry is closely associated with that of the Father and the Son.
The flesh is the other prominent theme, although it has been more prominent than the Spirit in chapters 1-7.
173 Paul is choosing his words very carefully here. Jesus Christ was God manifested in human flesh. At the birth of our Lord, sinless humanity was added to His perfect deity. He was not sinful, nor was His flesh (human nature), but having taken on our sins, He must be described as being “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3). Paul’s words are carefully chosen to maintain the sinlessness of our Lord who came in the flesh, and yet to reflect the fact that He took our sins upon Himself.
174 I see a distinction between those who “walk according to the flesh” (which includes Christians), and those who “are according to the flesh” or are “in the flesh.” The first category has to do with the way people live; the second category has to do with who people are. Verses 5-8 therefore describe the unbeliever (though a Christian can live like an unbeliever). Verses 9-11 describe the believer.
175 This is not to suggest that Christians are so spiritually minded that they fail to grasp earthly things. The Book of Proverbs illustrates that having your mind fixed on the Spirit enables you to better understand the earthly and physical realities of life as well.
We might illustrate this way. The non-Christian can only think and comprehend reality in a very narrow band width, while the Christian can view life through the entire spectrum of truth and reality. To change the analogy, the non-Christian is “color blind” to those hues which are in the realm of the Spirit.
177 It would be a very profitable exercise to list all of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to the Christian referred to in Romans 8.
179 By inference, verses 14-16 provide us with a helpful insight concerning our assurance of salvation. The doctrine of eternal security assures us that we are saved once for all. If you would, “once saved, always saved.” Eternal security is objective, and it does not change, no matter how we feel. Our assurance of salvation is more subjective. Assurance deals with how certain we feel about being saved. I may be saved and eternally secure, but lack assurance. Those who are being led by the Spirit are the sons of God. The Spirit witnesses within us, that we are God’s sons. If we do not walk in the Spirit, this assurance is not realized. If I am not walking in the Spirit, and thus being led by the Spirit, my assurance of salvation will likely be deficient and defective. Those who are being led by His Spirit have the assurance that they are sons of God.
182 Interestingly enough, these words of our Lord follow Matthew’s account of Peter’s rebuke of our Lord for talking of His sacrificial death, and our Lord’s rebuke of Peter for “setting his mind on man’s interests” (16:21-23).
184 There is, of course, a great difference between “a” son of God and “the” Son of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ alone is “the” Son of God. Every Christian is “a” son of God (see Galatians 3:26).
185 Luke carefully informs us that Joseph was only thought to be the earthly father of our Lord. The gospel writers have already informed us that God was the Father of the Lord Jesus, since He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:34-35; compare Matthew 1:18-20).
186 I am strongly inclined to understand that Proverbs was written especially to those who would reign as God’s king, and that the expression, “my son” often found in Proverbs, is evidence of this. See, for example, Proverbs 31:2-9.
187 If there were such an in-between place, it would not be that which should give us any comfort (see Revelation 3:15-16). In reality, there is no middle ground between the Spirit and the flesh. You are either in the Spirit or in the flesh—saved or lost. You are either living according to the Spirit or living according to the flesh.