Romans 8:5-9 The myth of the “carnal Christian”
Last Sunday, in my post on Romans 8.1-4 I brought up the possibility that those who evidence none of the sanctifying power of the gospel in their lives should face up to the possibility that they are not truly born again. The point of that post ( and of Romans 8 ) is to encourage the true believer. When Jesus died on the cross for us, he did so much more than just give us a second chance. He provided for us a complete salvation that includes not just forgiveness but all that he will give us for all eternity, including a deliverance from the power of sin right now.
How can it be good news to hear that sanctification is basically up to us and that it is possible to live a defeated and “carnal” life as a Christian? As we continue looking at Romans 8, I hope to show you that the whole idea of the “carnal Christian” is a perfidious myth that is keeping many people under the illusion that they are going to heaven when they are actually on their way to hell. This myth also leads true believers away from their simple faith in the cross of Christ and confuses and weakens them as they try to produce spiritual fruit in their own power rather than receiving it by faith in Christ and his finished work on the cross.
Here’s the continuation of Romans 8…
Romans 8.3–9 (ESV)
3 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, 4 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. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
Let me remind you what I pointed out last week: When verse four says that Jesus died so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,” it is referring to our sanctification—in other words, to righteousness that we actually experience and live out and possess. This is great news for the person who longs to live a life that is pleasing to God. The verse does not promise that this righteousness will be an immediate possession, but it does hold out the promise that the Bible’s description of a holy and righteous life will be in us someday. Based on this promise, the true Christian should expect to see a growth in righteousness over time because this is exactly what Jesus purchased for us through his death on the cross.
The rest of verse four through verse nine describe how this is possible. Let me first try to summarize what these verses are teaching and then show in detail how Paul’s logic works.
Here’s the summary: The Holy Spirit applies in the life of every Christian the victory and power over sin that Christ won on the cross. The Spirit does this by giving the Christian a new mindset, or disposition, to live in a way that pleases God.
Now let’s look at the details.
Paul is talking about two different kinds of people: those who belong to Christ and those who don’t
One of the obstacles to seeing the real power of what Paul is saying here is the stubborn and persistent myth in contemporary Christian thinking that it is possible to be a “carnal Christian”. Based on a misunderstanding of a couple of NT passages, we have fallen for the idea that it is possible to be a Christian and not live like a Christian, even though Jesus on repeated occasions gave a very strict and demanding description of what it means to be his disciple and what it means to be “worthy of him.”
Read through the passage again without this paradigm controlling your interpretation and you will see that Paul is clearly describing two types of people: on the one hand is the person who belongs to Christ and who “has the Holy Spirit” or “is in the Spirit” (verse nine), or as verse five puts it, who “lives according to the Spirit” (KJV—“they that are after the Spirit,” NASB—“those who are according to the Spirit”). On the other hand is the person who does not belong to Christ and who does not have the Spirit (verse nine) and who is described in verse five as one who “lives according to the flesh” (KJV—“they that are after the flesh,” NASB—“those who are according to the flesh”)
Paul describes what keeps the non-Christian who “lives according to the flesh” from living with power over sin.
Verse five describes the unbeliever as one whose mind is set on the things of the flesh. This idea of “mindset” is a difficult concept to translate as can be seen from a comparison of Bible translations. I like the way the NET Bible says it: “those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh.” This is talking about more than just what we choose to fill our minds with in any given moment. It is a worldview, a perspective on things, that is fleshly.
I don’t have time to go into detail on the difference between “flesh” and “Spirit” in Paul’s theology, but I have been greatly helped by Herman Ridderbos and his writings on this. For Paul, the concept of “flesh” refers to the present world order as it is fallen in Adam, whereas the concept of “spirit” refers to the future Kingdom of God as it has now come in Christ.
Paul is not talking in these verses about two different parts of my being: the fleshly part, and the spiritual part (a common but flawed approach to much of Paul’s teaching on sanctification). So when he says, “who lives according to the flesh,” he is referring to a person who has not yet been brought into the future Kingdom of God—of which the Holy Spirit is the seal and promise. That person is still living according to the present, sin-infested, unredeemed world order.
The problem is not that such a person is totally incapable of any action that is noble or kind or good, but rather that the mindset of such a person is shaped not by what God has done through his Son and is bringing to fulfillment, but by the here and now, by what is humanly attainable apart from the eternal purpose of God to bring glory to his Son.
Paul is not kind in his description of the mindset of the flesh. He says in verse six that it is “death,” in verse seven that it is hostile to God and does not submit to God’s law, and in verse 8 that it is not possible for this person to please God. Why? Because this is a human “works righteousness” that seeks to show God how good we can be rather than receiving in humble faith the righteousness of Christ.
When Christians try really hard to live sanctified lives, apart from what Jesus did on the cross, they are living like this person. Or it may be possible that they really still are this person that Paul describes.
Paul also describes what enables the true Christian to be assured of a life of increasing power and victory over sin.
Just as the mark of the non-Christian (or “pseudo-Christian”) is an outlook, mindset, or disposition to the things of the flesh, so the mark of the true Christian is a new mindset. He is a person who by the indwelling Holy Spirit (verse nine) sees things differently. His worldview is now shaped by the Spirit and he sees himself, the world, sin, and all reality from the Spirit’s viewpoint. Granted, this worldview is not perfectly formed the moment a person receives the Spirit, but the true believer will progressively grow into a spiritual mindset. Therefore, when instructed in the things of God he accepts that teaching and is steadily transformed by it. Such a mindset leads to life and peace (verse eight). A true believer who has received the Holy Spirit into his life has new desires for righteousness and a growing hatred of sin. He will inevitably grow in grace because the Spirit has given him a new disposition.
Right now my wife is counseling an individual whose life is full of seemingly insurmountable problems arising from this person’s ongoing struggle with sin. But it is interesting to see this individual’s response to the truth. There is an acceptance of Biblical truth, a recognition that God is speaking to her and calling her to repentance and faith. There are godly desires to experience the righteousness of Christ even though this calls for a humbling of self and pride. There is a desire to hold on only to him and what He has done for her at the cross. Hopefully, as my wife continues to counsel this friend, she will see this holy disposition to righteousness translate into action and real life change. That change may be slow. It may be labored and difficult. It may be accompanied with backsliding, but it will come if she truly belongs to Christ.
I like the way C.E.B. Cranfield says it in his commentary on these verses (emphasis added):
It must surely be said, on the one hand, that no Christian escapes from the hold of sin during this life, that even the very best Christians constantly fall short of God’s righteous requirements, that even the very best things they do are marred by their sinfulness, and that any impression of having attained to a perfect freedom is but an illusion, itself the expression of that very egotism which is the essence of man’s sinfulness. But, on the other hand, it must surely be said that there is such a difference between the believer’s and the unbeliever’s relation to the power of sin as justifies Paul’s use of “has… set… free”. The believer is no longer an unresisting, or only ineffectually resisting, slave. In him a constraint even stronger than that of sin is already at work, which both gives him an inner freedom, so that he already, in so far as the inner man is concerned, delights in God’s law (7.22) and already with his mind is committed to, and serves, it (7.25b). and also enables him to revolt against the usurping power of sin with a real measure of effectiveness. He has received the freedom to fight back manfully. Though the hold of his old master is not yet destroyed, his new – his rightful – Master has a firm hold upon him, and has claimed him for Himself and will not let go His claim. (Cranfield, Romans, p. 175)
Practical applications of these truths:
1. We need to look fruitless “pseudo-Christians” in the eye and challenge them that a confession of faith in Christ without an accompanying growth in grace is an empty confession and does not save.
I do not want anyone to hear in this post that we are justified on the basis of the righteousness that God progressively works into our lives. Not true! We are justified (made completely guiltless) the moment we put our faith in Christ, we do not have to attain to a certain degree of righteousness before we can be sure of our salvation. But justification is always followed by sanctification, which is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is truly present in a person’s life. If there is no evidence of God’s sanctifying work in a person’s life, we need to point them to the truth of Romans 8.1-9
2. We should expect to see new holy desires in our lives and nurture these by thanking God for them and asking him to strengthen them.
According to this passage, the new mindset, or disposition to righteousness that a true Christian experiences is produced by the Holy Spirit. It does not come from the individual. We should humbly thank God, recognizing that apart from his grace our mindset would be only hostility toward God marked by an inability to submit to his law.
One of my greatest frustrations with many Christians today is the refusal to recognize that everything good in us, even down to our very heart motivations comes from God by his grace because of what Jesus did on the cross. Many people think that if we recognize that our heart motivations do not come from us, but from God, it will cause people to just sit back and be passive and say, “well if God doesn’t want to make me holy, I guess I can’t be holy.” But that is convoluted thinking! A person who continues to think that way is in danger of evidencing that they are not really born again—that they have the mindset of the flesh.
Recognizing our dependence on God to give us holy, spiritual desires keeps us humble, it keeps us looking to the cross and what Jesus accomplished for us there. It keeps us living “according to the Spirit” who wants more than anything to glorify the Son and his righteousness by giving it to unworthy sinners.
It is glorifying to God when we confess to him the lukewarmness of our hearts and ask him to make us more passionate for him. Think about it… the very fact that we desire to not be lukewarm is evidence of a spiritual mindset! And our dependence on Jesus to make us passionate Christians is an evidence of our desire to see him glorified as the source of everything good in our lives.
Romans 8 is such a tremendous chapter because it describes not what we do for God, but what he has done and will do for us. When we make it into a two-way street, as if God needed our help in saving us from ourselves, we rip the hope and the power out of the gospel message. I love verses nine and ten. That “however” is pregnant with hope. It is my hope that as a believer redeemed by Jesus’ cross, I no longer “live according to the flesh” but “according to the Spirit.” I belong to him. I can please him. And I can look forward with a sure and certain hope to the righteous requirement of the law being fulfilled in me some day.
Romans 8.9-10 (ESV)
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.