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. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 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, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).
Romans 8:5-8 makes it very clear that there are only two kinds of people in the world. This passage draws a sharp line of distinction between these two classes of people. There are believers and unbelievers. According to this passage, there are those who have been justified, and those who are condemned. There are those who are according to the flesh, and those who are according to the Spirit. There are those who have set their mind on the things of the flesh, and there are those who have set their mind on the things of the Spirit. It is very obvious that there is a black and white distinction in this passage.
Paul wants to be crystal clear that if you have been justified by faith, you will be sanctified. There is no one who is justified by faith whose life is not dramatically changed. Everyone who has escaped the condemnation of God has undergone a radical work of God in their person life. Paul lays out a clear contrast so that there is no confusion for his readers. There is a back and forth in these verses between the two classes. There is clearly not a third or fourth class, but only two.
This is important because a few years ago, there was much talk about the “carnal Christian.” It was said that there were actually three classes of people. First, those who are not Christians. Second, those who are Christians. And third, those who claim to be Christians but live like non-Christians. Obviously, that is impossible. This text will show us very clearly that no one who has been justified by faith will continue to live as they once did.
The outline is very simple. In verse 5, there are two mindsets. In verse 6, there are two destinies. In verses 7-9, there are two dispositions.
I. Two Different Mindsets (8:5)
Everyone in the world has one of two mindsets. Paul tells us, “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh” (verse 5). Those who are “according to the flesh” are those who are “in the flesh” in verse 8. This means that the realm in which they live is a carnal, fleshly realm. They are governed by their flesh, rather than by the Spirit of God. The “flesh” refers to their carnal appetites, sinful desires, worldly pursuits, material pleasures, secular beliefs, self-interest, and self-promotion. Their minds are set on these things. They have a worldly mindset.
The phrase “set their minds” (phroneo) is one word in the Greek. It means to be absorbed with something, to focus sharply on something. It is not just occasionally glancing at fleshly things, but living life with their mind set on the things of the flesh. Their whole life revolves around living for the things of the world. This describes every unconverted person in the world. They live according to the flesh. Their mind is set on the things of the flesh. This mindset is impossible for a true believer and the complete opposite of a Christian.
“Of the Spirit”
Then note the stark contrast in the middle of verse 5, “But those who are according to the Spirit the things of the Spirit.” Paul makes a clear distinction, using the word “but” to mark the stark contrast. He is now referring to a believer. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We all entered this world living according to the flesh with our mind set on the things of the flesh. It is only by the new birth and the truth of regeneration that we are transferred from the fleshly realm where we lived for the flesh to the spiritual realm where we live for the Spirit.
The “things of the Spirit” are those things that belong to God, such as the kingdom of God, the Son of God, the word of God, the truth of God, and the will of God. We who are “according to the Spirit” have a totally different mindset than those who are of the flesh. We see the world different and have different affections and desires. The contrast could not be any greater. Previously, we desired the things of the flesh, now we desire the things of the Spirit.
To become a Christian is to be moved from the first realm into the second realm. We no longer live in the old realm. We cannot have one foot in and one foot out. We cannot live according to the flesh Monday through Saturday, and then live according to the Spirit on Sunday. When you are born again, you are completely uprooted and replanted in this totally new realm, the realm of the Spirit. You now have the mind of Christ with a totally new worldview and perspective on life. You now see with a divine and eternal perspective. It brings about a radical change in your life.
The two realms are totally different and you cannot live in both at the same time. You entered the world in one realm, but upon salvation, you were transferred to the other realm, the realm of the Spirit. Your mind was once set on the things of the flesh, but now it is set on the things of the Spirit. The two mindsets are completely different.
II. Two Different Destinies (8:6)
As we move to verse 6, we see that these contrasting mindsets take lives in two totally opposite directions that end up in two totally different places. Paul writes, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (verse 6). “The mind set on the flesh” is obviously not talking about the believer, but rather the unbeliever, who was born in and continues to live in a spiritual state of death. When Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death,” he is really referring to the outcome of this life, which is eternal death, the second death.
Paul previously wrote, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). This clearly states that sin results in death. Likewise, the life that lives in the realm of sin results in death. You are already in a spiritual state of death before you are converted, so it is really like you are going from one death to the next death. Almost like a corpse going to the grave.
Paul continues, “Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death” (Romans 6:21). Then, he again emphasizes, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Verse 16 said the result is death, verse 21 said the outcome is death, and verse 23 said the wages of sin is death. This is saying the same thing three different ways in three different verses. This does not refer to physical death, but spiritual death. It is eternal death, eternal destruction, eternal condemnation. The one whose mindset is according to the flesh will end up in eternal death.
“Life and Peace”
The second half of Romans 8:6 is the total contrast. It refers to true believers, those who have been born again. Paul writes, “but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (verse 6). This describes every true believer in Jesus Christ, those who have been born again. Their mindset has been totally reversed. There is a total turnaround in their life so that their mind is now set on the Spirit and the things of the Spirit. The resulting outcome is the total opposite of death—it is life and peace.
This “life” refers to eternal life in the ages to come. There is a completely different destiny that lies ahead for the one who belongs to God. “Peace” does not refer to the peace of God, which is subjective, but peace with God, which is objective. In the next verse, you will note a contrasting word, “hostile.” This means enmity with God, being at war with God. But in verse 6, “peace” refers to the opposite of hostility. It is the opposite of being at enmity with God. Those who have a mind set on the Spirit are now at peace with God, because they have been reconciled to God through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. This peace refers to the eternal state of reconciliation and acceptance with God.
Romans 5:1 first introduced us to being at peace with God: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” What did you have before you were justified? The very opposite of peace with God. You were hostile towards God, at war with Him, and God was at war with you. You were under the wrath of God. Romans 1:18 reminds us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” There is more to the story than “God loves sinners.” God is also angry with sinners and His wrath abides on every unbeliever. When we believe in Christ, we are no longer at war with God, and He is no longer at war with us. We enter into a state of peace with God and God is at peace with us, because the wrath of God has been propitiated by the blood sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The two different mindsets lead to two different destinies. There could not be a more dramatic difference than death and life. It is like the difference between light and darkness. It is a total juxtaposition. Every person’s life is headed to one of these two outcomes, either to eternal life or to eternal death.
III. Two Different Dispositions (8:7-9)
In verses 7-9, we see two different dispositions that are indicative of these two different classes of people. Verses 7-8 refer to those who are unbelievers, who are according to the flesh, whose outcome is death. Verse 9 refers to true believers, who are according to the Spirit, whose outcome is life. These verses talk about the totally opposite dispositions of the two groups. Disposition means the heart, the nature, the inner person, the bent of their life.
Disposition of an Unbeliever
There are four things to note about the unbeliever in verses 7-8. First, we see their hostility toward God. Paul writes, “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God” (verse 7). Again, the mind “set on the flesh” means the mind that is governed by the flesh, controlled by the flesh, and set upon fleshly things. This person is “hostile toward God.” “Hostile” means hatred, enmity, and bitter opposition against God. This is clearly not a neutral state. This person is not sitting on the fence with one arm around the flesh and one arm around God. Rather, their whole life is hostile toward God.
This hostility can be represented either in active rebellion against God or in passive indifference toward God. Either way, Paul says it is hostility toward God. The unbeliever is “hostile in mind” toward God (Colossians 1:21). It goes deeper than their actions, it is the very mindset of the unbeliever. They push against God. They do not want God to tell them how to live their life. They want to go their own way and do their own thing. They do not want to be bound by God.
James also says that unbelievers have “hostility toward God” and are “an enemy of God” (James 4:4). This refers to every unbeliever on the earth. They may be someone who attends church, grew up in a Christian home, or went to a Christian school. But until they come to faith in Christ, they are still keeping God at arm’s length. They only want God on the superficial exterior façade of their life. They do not want Him on the interior, governing and controlling their life. They reject and refuse God, wanting to continue to go their own way.
Second, we see the mindset of superiority within the unbeliever. They are arrogant, self-elevating, and prideful. Paul continues, “for it does not subject itself to the law of God.” “It” refers to the mind set on the flesh. There is no humility, submission, or surrender within them. They refuse to come under the authority of the word of God. They may have some outward morality, but in their heart, they refuse to come under the authority of God’s word. There is a superiority about their mindset that they are above the word of God, rather than in submission under it. They have the superior mindset of a critic who picks and chooses which parts they will apply to their life. They want God a-la-carte, where they can pick and choose which parts to follow and which parts to ignore. They are determined to run their own life by their own standards and will not submit to the authority of the word of God.
The psalmist writes, “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!’” (Psalm 2:1-3). This is a worldwide conspiracy of rebellion and anarchy against God. It is true in every generation. It is the doctrine of total depravity. The unbelieving world refuses to be tied down by the moral constraints of God’s word. They want to redefine the family, gender, marriage, ethics, and the terms of coming to God. They want to throw off all moral restraints given by God. Romans 8:7 shows the very same picture. They will not subject themselves to the law of God because sin is ruling their life.
Third, we see the moral inability of the unregenerate flesh. It is incapable of submitting to the word of God. Paul continues, “For it” referring to the mind set on the flesh, “is not even able to do so” (verse 7). There is a stubborn resistance in the nature of every unbeliever who has not been birthed from above by the Spirit of God. Note that they are “not even able to do so.” They need God to dramatically lay hold of them and to intervene, interrupting their life, and transplanting them into His kingdom. Unless God grants salvation, they are unable to follow the Law of God.
Fourth, we see that it is impossible for the unbeliever to please God. Paul continues, “And those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (verse 8). To be “in the flesh” is the same as being “according to the flesh” (verse 5) and “setting your mind on the things of the flesh” (verse 6). That is the realm of your lifestyle and it “cannot please God.” This clearly means that this person has no ability in their flesh to please God. The very first step to pleasing God is to believe in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are told that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Paul is intentionally moving these two classes to opposite extremes so that we understand that they are not even touching. There is a chasm that separates the believer from the unbeliever.
Disposition of a Believer
In verse 9, Paul moves to the believer. He begins with, “However,” which is a way of stating a stark contrast to what was previously said. Paul now turns away from describing the lifestyle, nature, and disposition of the unbeliever to addressing the believers in the church in Rome. He writes, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (verse 9). No believer lives in the flesh. We still retain the flesh and make fleshly choices, but the pattern of our life is not in the flesh. We live in the Spirit. It is a whole different kingdom. There is no straddling the fence. There is not a third category that is in the middle of these two. You are either in the flesh or in the Spirit.
To be “in the Spirit” means that you are in Christ. You have been placed there by the Spirit. When you are “in the Spirit,” the Holy Spirit lives within you. The believer’s body is the royal residence of the Holy Spirit. Our body is a temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Paul says that the Holy Spirit dwells in every true believer, and therefore, we are in the Spirit. For us to be “in the Spirit” means that we are living under the governing power and control of God the Holy Spirit. When we take a wrong step, the Holy Spirit convicts us and brings us back. We will never lose our salvation because the Holy Spirit seals us in Christ and we cannot escape.
To sum up these verses, the first half of verse 5 refers to unbelievers. The second half of verse 5 refers to believers. The first half of verse 6 refers to unbelievers. The second half of verse 6 refers to believers. Verses 7-8 refer to unbelievers. And verse 9 refers to believers. The reason that Paul stresses this in the middle of his teaching on sanctification is for us to understand that every true believer is in the Spirit, is indwelt by the Spirit, is living according to the Spirit, and has set his mind on the things of the Spirit. That is categorically true.
As we look back at these verses, I have three points of application. The first is self-examination. Every one of us needs to examine ourselves of whether we are in the flesh or in the Spirit. Are you in Adam or in Christ? Are you of the world or of Christ? Are you lost or are you saved, unconverted or converted? Every one of us needs to examine ourselves to see whether we have been born again. Are you birthed by the Spirit of God into the kingdom of God?
Paul draws a clear line in the sand and every one of us is on one of two sides. In order to be right with God, in order for there to be no condemnation, we must be in Christ. There is only one way to be in Christ, and that is to be born again by believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ. When that happens, you are taken from this old realm in which you previously lived, and you are transplanted into a totally different realm—the realm of the Spirit of God and of Jesus Christ.
Where are you in relation to Jesus Christ? When did this happen? It was a divine act of God upon your soul that happened at an exact moment in time. It did not happen over a long period of time. You may not remember the exact date or time, but it did happen on an exact date at a specific time. When did this transfer take place in your life? It is the most important question. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I say to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7). “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Self-examination is between you and God. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Second, self-renunciation. If you realize that you are living according to the flesh, then you need to repent and turn away from your carnal pursuits and desires. You must deny yourself and take up your cross. You must renounce your old way of life. You cannot have one foot in the old way of life and one foot in the new way of life. You must renounce your old way of life. We live in this world, but we do not live for this world; we live for the world to come while we are here upon the earth. Have you renounced your old way of life? Have you renounced living for the kingdoms of this world so that you may live for the kingdom of God? “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
For those of us who have renounced our old way of life, it is good for us to be reminded that we have burned the bridges behind us and there is no going back to living for the things of this world. This does not mean that we cannot work in this world. There is a vocational call of God upon our lives to work diligently in this world. But there is a difference in working in the world and working for the world. We no longer live for the things of this world. We are in the world, but we are not of the world.
Third, self-presentation. Having renounced our old way of life, we now present ourselves to Jesus Christ to live out this new manner of life. We must entrust our life to Christ. We must submit to the law of God and live in obedience to it. Verse 7 said that the unbeliever will not subject himself to the law of God. This clearly implies that the believer does subject himself to the law of God. This means that we live in purposeful obedience from the heart, motivated by the grace of God, to please God in all things. Verse 8 says that those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But we are in the Spirit, and our life’s goal is to please God. What pleases God is when we trust Him and live for Him.
We must continually present ourselves to God. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1). We must be like the priest who presents the sacrifice on the altar. We must present our lives on the altar to God. In Old Testament times, the priest presented a dead sacrifice. However, in New Testament times, we now present the living sacrifice of our very lives. May we give careful thought to how we need to daily present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice.