For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace: …But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you….
ROMANS 8:6, 9
One of the most telling blows which the enemy ever struck at the life of the Church was to create in her a groundless fear of the Holy Spirit! He has been and is so widely misunderstood that the very mention of His Name in some circles is enough to frighten many people into resistance.
Perhaps we may help by examining that fire which is the symbol of the Spirit’s Person and Presence.
The Holy Spirit is first of all a moral flame. It is not an accident of language that He is called the HOLY Spirit, for whatever else the word holy may mean it does undoubtedly carry with it the idea of moral purity. And the Spirit, being God, must be absolutely and infinitely pure!
It follows then that whoever would be filled and indwelt by the Spirit should first judge his life for any hidden iniquities; he should courageously expel from his heart everything which is out of accord with the character of God as revealed by the holy Scriptures.
At the base of all true Christian experience must lie a sound and sane morality. No joys are valid, no delights legitimate where sin is allowed to live in life or conduct. No transgression of pure righteousness dare excuse itself on the ground of superior religious experience.
“Be ye holy” is a serious commandment from the Lord of the whole earth. The true Christian ideal is not to be happy but to be holy. The holy heart alone can be the habitation of the Holy Spirit!
The Holy Spirit Changes Our Nature
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. 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. And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 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 indwell-s you. (8:5–11)
In verse 4 Paul speaks of the believer’s behavior, contending that he does “not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” As in verses 2 and 3, the conjunction for in verse 5 carries the meaning of because. The point is that a believer does not behave according to the flesh because his new heart and mind are no longer centered on the things of the flesh and ruled by sin.
In God’s eyes, there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who do not belong to Him and those who do. Put another way, there are only those who are according to the flesh and those who are according to the Spirit. As far as spiritual life is concerned, God takes no consideration of gender, age, education, talent, class, race, or any other human distinctions (Gal. 3:28). He differentiates people solely on the basis of their relationship to Him, and the difference is absolute.
Obviously there are degrees in both categories. Some unsaved people exhibit high moral behavior, and, on the other hand, many saints do not mind the things of God as obediently as they should. But every human being is completely in one spiritual state of being or the other; he either belongs to God or he does not. Just as a person cannot be partly dead and partly alive physically, neither can he be partly dead and partly alive spiritually. There is no middle ground. A person is either forgiven and in the kingdom of God or unforgiven and in the kingdom of this world. He is either a child of God or a child of Satan.
In this context, the phrase according to refers to basic spiritual nature. The Greek could be translated literally as those being according to, indicating a persons fundamental essence, bent, or disposition. Those who are according to the flesh are the unsaved, the unforgiven, the unredeemed, the unregenerate. Those who are according to the Spirit are the saved, the forgiven, the redeemed, the regenerated children of God. As the apostle points out a few verses later, the unsaved not only are according to the flesh but are in the flesh and are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, The saved, on the other hand, not only are according to the Spirit but are in the Spirit and indwelt by Him (v. 9). Here in verse 5 Paul is speaking of the determinant spiritual pattern of a persons life, whereas in verses 8–9 he is speaking of the spiritual sphere of a person’s life.
Phroneō, the verb behind set their minds, refers to the basic orientation, bent, and thought patterns of the mind, rather than to the mind or intellect itself (Greek nous). It includes a person’s affections and will as well as his reasoning. Paul uses the same verb in Philippians, where he admonishes believers to “have this attitude [or, “mind”] in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5; see also 2:2; 3:15, 19; Col. 3:2).
The basic disposition of the unredeemed is to “indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires” (2 Pet. 2:10). The lost are those “whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19). The things of the flesh includes false philosophies and religions, which invariably appeal, whether overtly or subtly, to the flesh through self-interest and self-effort.
But those who are according to the Spirit, Paul says, set their minds on the things of the Spirit. In other words, those who belong to God are concerned about godly things. As Jonathan Edwards liked to say, they have “holy affections,” deep longings after God and sanctification. As Paul has made clear in Romans 7, even God’s children sometimes falter in their obedience to Him. But as the apostle said of himself, they nevertheless “joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Rom. 7:22). Despite their many spiritual failures, their basic orientation and innermost concerns have to do with the things of the Spirit.
Phronēma (the mind) is the noun form of the verb in verse 5, and, like the verb, refers to the content or thought patterns of the mind rather than to the mind itself. It is significant that Paul does not say that the mind set on the flesh leads to death, but that it is death. The unsaved person is already dead spiritually. The apostle is stating a spiritual equation, not a spiritual consequence. The consequence involved in this relationship is the reverse: that is, because unredeemed men are already spiritually dead, their minds are inevitably set on the flesh. Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that, before salvation, they were all once “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).
There is, of course, a sense in which sin leads to death. “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,” Isaiah declared to Israel, “and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear” (Isa. 59:2). Earlier in the book of Romans Paul explained that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23) and that “while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death” (7:5; cf. Gal 6:8).
But Paul’s emphasis in the present passage is on the state of death in which every unbeliever already exists, even while his body and mind may be very much alive and active. “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” Paul explained to the Corinthian believers, “for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14).
Some years ago I conducted the funeral for a baby girl killed in an automobile accident. Before the service the mother kept reaching into the casket, taking the lifeless little body in her arms and caressing her and crying softly to her. The baby, of course, could no longer respond to anything in the physical realm, because there was no life there to respond.
The unsaved person is a spiritual corpse and consequently is completely unable, in himself, to respond to the things of God. Unless the Holy Spirit intervenes by convicting him of sin and enabling him to respond to God by faith and thus being made alive, the unsaved person is as insensitive to the things of God as that baby was to the caresses and cries of its mother.
But the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace. Again Paul states an equation, not a consequence. The mind set on the Spirit, that is, on the things of God, equates life and peace, which equates being a Christian. The mind set on the Spirit is synonymous with Christian, a person who has been born again, given spiritual life by God’s grace working through his faith.
The mind set on the Spirit is also synonymous with spiritual peace, that is, peace with God. The unsaved person, no matter how much he may claim to honor, worship, and love God, is God’s enemy-a truth Paul has already pointed out in this epistle. Before we were saved, he states, we were all enemies of God (5:10). Only the person who has new life in God has peace with God.
The obvious corollary of that truth is that it is impossible to have a mind set on the Spirit, which includes having spiritual life and peace, and yet remain dead to the things of God. A professing Christian who has no sensitivity to the things of God, no “holy affections,” does not belong to God. Nor does a merely professing Christian have a battle with the flesh, because he is, in reality, still naturally inclined toward the things of the flesh. He longs for the things of the flesh, which are normal to him, because he is still in the flesh and has his mind wholly set on the things of the flesh.
An unbeliever may be deeply concerned about not living up to the religious standards and code he has set for himself or that his denomination or other religious organization has set, and he may struggle hard in trying to achieve those goals. But his struggle is purely on a human level. It is a struggle not generated by the love of God but by self-love and the subsequent desire to gain greater favor with God or men on the basis of superior personal achievement. Whatever religious and moral struggles he may have are problems of flesh with flesh, not of Spirit against flesh, because the Holy Spirit is not in a fleshly person and a fleshly person is not in the Spirit.
As Paul has illustrated from his own life in Romans 7, a true Christian battles with the flesh because his mortal body still hangs on and tries to lure him back into the old sinful ways. But he is no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit. Speaking of true believers, Paul said, “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” (Gal. 5:17). But “if we live by the Spirit,” he goes on to say, “let us also walk by the Spirit” (v. 25; cf. v. 16). In other words, because a believer’s new nature is divine and is indwelt by God’s own Spirit, he desires to behave accordingly.
It is important to note that, when he speaks of sin in a Christians life, Paul is always careful to identify sin with the outer, corrupted body, not with the new, inner nature. A believer’s flesh is not redeemed when he trusts in Christ. If that were so, all Christians would immediately become perfect when they are saved, which even apart from the testimony of Scripture is obviously not true. The sinful vestige of unredeemed humanness will not fall away until the Christian goes to be with the Lord. It is for that reason that the New Testament sometimes speaks of a Christian’s salvation in the future tense (see Rom. 13:11). Referring to those who were already saved, Paul says later in this chapter, “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” (Rom. 8:23). As the apostle explains to the Corinthians, “It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42–44).
No matter how self-sacrificing, moral, and sincere the life of an unredeemed person may be, his religious efforts are selfish, because he cannot truly serve God, because his mind, is set on the flesh. Paul again (cf. v. 6) uses the term phronem̄a (the mind), which refers to the content, the thought patterns, the basic inclination and orientation of a person. This inclination, or bent, of the flesh is even more deep-seated and significant than actual disobedience, which is simply the outward manifestation of the inner, fleshly compulsions of an unregenerate person.
Every unredeemed person, whether religious or atheistic, whether outwardly moral or outwardly wicked, is hostile toward God. An unsaved person cannot live a godly and righteous life because he has no godly and righteous nature or resources. He therefore cannot have genuine love for God or for the things of God. His sinful, fleshly mind does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so. Even an unbeliever whose life seems to be a model of good works is not capable of doing anything truly good, because he is not motivated or empowered by God and because his works are produced by the flesh for self-centered reasons and can never be to God’s glory. It clearly follows, then, that if the fleshly mind does not and cannot subject itself to the law of God, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Men were created for the very purpose of pleasing God. At the beginning of the practical section of this epistle Paul says, “I urge you therefore, 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. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2). In a similar way he admonished the Corinthians, “whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to [God]” (2 Cor. 5:9; cf. Eph. 5:10; Phil. 4:18). He exhorted the believers at Thessalonica “to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more” (1 Thess. 4:1).
After describing the spiritual characteristics and incapacities of those who are in the flesh, Paul again addresses those who are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Sinful human flesh can only reproduce more sinful human flesh. Only God’s Holy Spirit can produce spiritual life.
A test of saving faith is the indwell-ing presence of the Holy Spirit. “You can be certain of your salvation,” Paul is saying, “if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Oikeō (dwells) has the idea of being in one’s own home. In a marvelous and incomprehensible way, the very Spirit of God makes His home in the life of every person who trusts in Jesus Christ.
The opposite of that reality is also true: But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. The person who gives no evidence of the presence, power, and fruit of God’s Spirit in his life has no legitimate claim to Christ as Savior and Lord. The person who demonstrates no desire for the things of God and has no inclination to avoid sin or passion to please God is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus does not belong to Christ. In light of that sobering truth Paul admonishes those who claim to be Christians: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you-unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
And if Christ is in you, Paul continues to say to believers, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. In other words, if God’s Spirit indwell-s us, our own spirit is alive because of righteousness, that is, because of the divinely-imparted righteousness by which every believer is justified (Rom. 3:21–26). In light of that perfect righteousness, all human attempts at being righteous are but rubbish (Phil. 3:8).
Summing up what he has just declared in verses 5–10, Paul says, 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 indwell-s you. It was again the Holy Spirit who was the divine agent of Christ’s resurrection. And just as the Spirit lifted Jesus out of physical death and gave Him life in His mortal body, so the Spirit, who dwells in the believer, gives to that believer new life now and forever (cf. John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3:6).
The Carnal Man and the True Christian
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
In my first study of Romans 8, in which I surveyed the entire chapter, I said that in my opinion verses 5–14 are the most important of all if we consider them from the perspective of the weakness and need of the church of Jesus Christ at the present time. This is because they correct a mistaken but very popular understanding of what it means to be a Christian. This mistaken view, as we have already seen, divides people into three classes: (1) those who are not Christians, (2) those who are Christians, and (3) those who are Christians but who are living in an “unsaved” manner. The latter are often called “carnal Christians.”
Not long ago I received a book written by two of my friends that (rather uncritically, I think) assumed this mistaken notion. It was a book for laymen and was intended to help them mature as Christians so they could function as leaders in the local church. It encouraged them to move beyond being mere “Christians” to being “disciples” of Jesus Christ. At one point it said, “All followers of [Christ] are his sheep, but not all sheep are his disciples.”
I have respect for my friends and applaud their intentions in this book. They are right in wanting laymen to assume their proper role in the church’s life. But the problem lies in their procedure. They have adopted the three-category view, and this, I am convinced, inevitably leads the reader to think that—although it may be wise and perhaps even beneficial to become serious about the Christian life—becoming a “disciple” of Jesus Christ is, in the final analysis, merely optional. This conclusion is fatal, because it encourages us to suppose that we can be careless about our Christianity, doing little and achieving nothing, and yet go to heaven securely when we die.
I suppose it is this that has bothered me the most, the idea that one can live as the world lives and still go to heaven. If it is true, it is comfortable teaching. We are to have the best of both worlds, sin here and heaven, too. But if it is not true, those who teach it are encouraging people to believe that all is well with them when they are, in fact, not even saved. They are crying, “Peace!” when there is no peace. They are doing damage to their souls.
Two Classes of People
We come to this problem in the paragraph of Romans 8 that begins with verse 5, because in these verses, for the first time in the letter, the apostle gives a careful definition of the “carnal” person. The idea occurs five times in verses 5–8 (“sinful nature” in niv). It has already occurred three times in verses 3–4.
“Carnal” is a rather straightforward translation of the Greek word sarx, which means “flesh.” But sarx is one of those words that has several natural meanings. Basically, it refers to the fleshly parts of the body, which is why “carnal” (from the Latin word caro, meaning “meat”) is used to translate it. But the meaning quickly goes beyond this in Bible passages to refer to certain aspects of what it means to be a human being. One thing it means is to be weak. This is a characteristic Old Testament usage, as in the words, “All flesh is grass” (kjv; niv has “All men are like grass,” to convey the real meaning). To be “fleshly” also means to be human rather than divine. This is because “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and we are mere flesh. A third thing “flesh” means is to be sinful. This is the most important meaning of sarx in the New Testament. It is why, in Romans 8, for instance, the word is translated by the New International Version as “sinful nature.” It means to be a merely sinful man, that is, man apart from the regenerating and transforming work of the Holy Spirit of God in salvation.
This is what we have to keep in mind as we study Romans 8. For what Paul is talking about here is the difference between those who are Christians and those who are not. That is, he is speaking of two kinds of people only, not three. Specifically, he is not speaking of how a “carnal Christian” is supposed to move beyond a rather low state of commitment in order to become a more serious disciple of the Lord.
The Carnal or Unsaved Person
What is it that most characterizes an unsaved person? These verses define the unbeliever in four important ways: (1) in regard to his thinking, (2) in regard to his state, (3) in regard to his religion, and (4) in regard to his present condition.
- His thinking. The first verse of this paragraph concerns the unbeliever’s thinking, telling us that “those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires” (v. 5). Here is a case in which the New International Version rendering of sarx by “sinful nature” has both a bad and a good side.
The bad side is this: When we hear the words flesh or carnal, most of us naturally think of what we term “fleshly sins,” things like sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, a preoccupation with money perhaps, materialism, desire for praise from other human beings, pride, and other such vices. The term does include such things, and they are much of what the world sets its mind on. To replace “flesh” by “sinful nature” causes most of us to overlook these very things. We can forget that if our minds are set on these rather than on spiritual things, we are not Christians.
But the translation of sarx as “sinful nature” has a good side, too, because it frees us from thinking only of what we call fleshly sins. The word includes those sins, as I said, but it also includes many things that we do not associate with being fleshly. Take a very moral person, for example. He or she does not indulge in debauchery. Does this mean that such a person is therefore thinking spiritually rather than according to the sinful nature? Not at all. In an unsaved state, the cultured, well-spoken moral person is as devoid of the Spirit of God, and is therefore as lost, as any other.
Paul himself was once an example. Recall how he summarized his early life in the great testimony passage from Philippians. He said that before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he believed that he was right before God. He describes himself as being: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:5–6). This is a portrait of a moral man. But it is no less a portrait of one whose mind was set on what his sinful self desired. What did Paul desire? He desired to prove himself to God, to prove that he was worthy of God’s favor, to show that he could earn heaven. Nothing is so characteristic of the thinking of the unbeliever as this delusion.
- His state. The next verse of this paragraph describes the state of the unbeliever. It is “death” (v. 6). Paul is not speaking of physical death, of course. He is speaking of spiritual death, and what he means is that the unsaved person is as unresponsive to the things of God as a corpse.
The Bible tells us that the power, wisdom, and glory of God are clearly revealed in nature: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). The unsaved person does not see this. He may use the word God at times, but the word does not really mean anything to this person. He would far rather believe that the universe came into being by evolution or chance or in any other way rather than being created by a God who demands a proper respect and right moral conduct from those he has created.
The unbeliever’s condition is even worse when it comes to the truths of the Bible. Either he cannot understand them at all or else they seem utterly foolish to him. Why? It is because it takes the Holy Spirit to provide such understanding. The Bible says, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones relates a classic case of this lack of spiritual understanding in an incident from the lives of William Wilberforce, the man who led the movement to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, and William Pitt the Younger, who at one time was prime minister of England. Wilberforce was a Christian. Pitt was only a formal Christian, like so many others of that day. However, these two parliamentarians were friends, and Wilberforce was concerned for his friend’s salvation. In those days there was a great preacher in London whose name was Richard Cecil. Wilberforce thrilled to his ministry and was constantly trying to get his friend Pitt to go with him to hear Cecil. Pitt kept putting Wilberforce off, but at last after many invitations Pitt agreed to go. Cecil was at his best, preaching in his most spirited manner. Wilberforce was ecstatic. He couldn’t imagine anything more enjoyable or wonderful. He was delighted that Pitt was with him. But as they were leaving the service afterward, Pitt turned to his friend and said, “You know, Wilberforce, I have not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.” Clearly, Pitt was as deaf to God as if he were a physically dead man.
- His religion. At first glance it might seem strange to speak of the “religion” of those who operate according to the sinful nature, since we have just shown that they are unresponsive to God. But strange as it may seem, the unsaved do have a religion. The third verse of the paragraph speaks about this. It tells us that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (v. 7).
Not long ago I was reading an article in which the writer was speculating on the nature of things to come and in one place talked about religion. He used a phrase that struck me. He said that in the future we are likely to see a growth of “a la carte religion,” meaning that people will choose the items they like from a potpourri of religions and then combine them to make their own comfortable little religious systems. I liked that description, because it struck me as something I had already observed. I had noticed that in our largely irrational age it is a common thing for people to hold many mutually inconsistent ideas, the only force holding them together being their own individual attractions to them. But, as I have thought about it, it seems to me that this is what all religions already are in one sense. They are collections of human thoughts held for no other reason than that they are comfortable. They are comfortable because what they actually do is to protect their adherents from the only truly valid claims of God.
This is why Paul says that people in their unsaved state are hostile to God and why they do not submit to his law. The two go together. They do not submit to God’s law because they are hostile to him, and because they are hostile to God they inevitably try to construct a religion that will protect themselves from him.
- His present condition. The last thing Paul says of the unsaved, or “fleshly,” individual is that a person like this “cannot please God” (v. 8). How could he, if he is hostile to God and is doing everything humanly possible to resist and trample down his just law? Pleased with the wicked? Of course not. God is displeased with unbelievers constantly.
Characteristics of the Christian
The apostle is not writing only of unbelievers in these verses, however. He is also writing of Christians, contrasting them with unbelievers. He lists two of the Christian’s contrasting characteristics specifically.
- The Christian’s thinking. In verse 5 the apostle contrasts the unbeliever and the Christian in terms of their thinking, saying that the unbeliever has his mind set on what the sinful nature desires but that the Christian has his mind “set on what the Spirit desires.” This is a profound way of speaking, for it eliminates many misconceptions of what it means to be a Christian while it establishes the truly essential thing.
First, it eliminates the idea that the Christian is someone who is merely very “religious.” To be religious and to be mindful of the things of the Spirit are two entirely different things. The Pharisees were religious, excessively so, but they killed Jesus. Before he was saved, Paul was religious, but he expressed his religion by trying to do away with Christians. Ironically, one function of religion is to try to eliminate God, as we have seen.
Paul’s way of speaking also eliminates the idea that a Christian is anyone who merely holds to right theological beliefs. Much popular Christianity makes this destructive error, suggesting that as long as you simply confess that you are a sinner and believe that Jesus is your Savior and “receive him,” whatever that means, you are right with God and will certainly go to heaven. Do not get me wrong here. I know that there are degrees of understanding on the part of Christians and that many true Christians are yet babes in Christ, perhaps because they have never been given adequate teaching. Many might be unable to describe their faith in any terms more adequate than those I have just given. I do not want to deny that they are Christians. But what I do want to say is that it is possible to confess those things and still not be a Christian, simply because being a Christian is more than giving mere verbal assent to certain doctrines. It is to be born again. And since being born again is the work of God’s Spirit, it is right to insist that those who are truly born again will have their minds set on what God desires.
Finally, Paul’s way of speaking eliminates the idea that a Christian is someone who has attained a certain standard of approved conduct.
What, then, does being a Christian mean? It means exactly what Paul says. The Christian is someone who has been born again by the work of the Holy Spirit and who now, as a result of that internal transformation, has his mind set on what the Spirit of God desires. If we are Christians, it does not mean that we have attained to this standard, at least not fully. But it does mean that we want to. Do you remember the illustration of the path? Being on the path does not mean that we have arrived at our destination. If it did, we would already be completely like Jesus. But it does mean that we are moving along this path, that we are following Jesus, who is going before us, that we are trying to be like him.
Having our minds set on what the Spirit desires takes us back to verse 4, in which the purpose of God in saving us is spelled out as our fully meeting the just requirements of the law. That is what the Spirit desires, and if we are Christians, our minds will be fixed on doing exactly that.
- The Christian’s state. The second specific characteristic of the Christian is his state, described as “life and peace” (v. 6). It is the opposite of “death,” which describes the non-Christian. The Christian is a person who has been made alive by God’s Spirit. Spiritual matters make sense to him now. Before, he was dead in his sins; now he is alive to a whole new world of reality. And he is at peace—peace with himself, as he never was before, in spite of many heroic efforts to convince himself that he was. Above all, he is at peace with God.
The word peace, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out, corresponds to the points of verse 7 step by step. “The natural man, the carnal mind, is ‘enmity against God, is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.’ But of the Christian, you say at once: ‘He can be subject to it, he is subject to it, he desires to be subject to it, and he goes out of his way to subject himself to it.’ He ‘hungers and thirsts after righteousness,’ he desires to keep the commands which God has given.”
Signs of the New Life
I come to the end of this study, to the application, and it is very, very simple. Everything I have said is directed to one end only, and that is to have you look into your heart and take stock of whether or not you are a true Christian. I do not mean whether or not you are an exemplary Christian or a well-instructed Christian, certainly not a perfect Christian (no creature like that exists), but whether or not you are truly born again. Has the Holy Spirit of God made you alive in Jesus Christ so that your thinking, state, religion, and present condition have been changed?
More than two hundred years ago, when preaching in this country was vastly superior to what it generally is today, Jonathan Edwards wrote “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” in which he examined the “signs” of God’s gracious work in a person and attempted to distinguish between signs that are true and certain and signs that are not. His subheads in the first part of the essay read:
Great effects on the body are no sign.
Fluency and fervor are no sign.
That they are excited by us is no sign.
That they come with texts of Scripture is no sign.
Religious affections of many kinds are no sign.
Joys following in a certain order are no sign.
Much time and zeal in duty are no sign.
Much expression of praise is no sign.
Great confidence is no certain sign.
Affecting relations are no sign.
Edwards was convinced, no doubt rightly, that none of these things, as powerful or moving as they may sometimes be, in itself proves that the person is being acted upon by God, rather than by the mere emotion of the moment, or that the individual is saved.
What is a sure sign, then? The answer boils down to whether the person has his or her mind set on the things of the Spirit of God and whether this is moving, as it must, in the direction of a true righteousness.
Are you born again? Do you have a new nature? Have you passed out of death into life, from being dominated by the sinful nature to being controlled by the Spirit of God? If you do not know the answer to that question, do not let the matter rest until you know that you really are in Christ. Nothing in all life comes close to that matter in importance. Pursue it with all your strength. And if by the grace of God—perhaps through the application of his Word to your heart through this study—you realize that you are not yet a new creature in Christ, call out for salvation. Trust that, as God has been gracious in opening your eyes to your true condition, he will also work in grace to bring you out of death into the utter newness of the Christian life.
Who is a Christian?
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
A few years ago, at one of the early Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology, John Gerstner was speaking on the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins from Matthew 25. He was arguing that, although each of these women seemed to be what we would today call believers, only five were actually taken to be with the bridegroom when he came, which means that only five were saved. He pointed out that: (1) all had been invited to the wedding banquet; (2) all belonged to what we would call the visible church; (3) all professed to have the bridegroom as their Lord; (4) all believed in the Lord’s “second coming”; (5) all were waiting for Jesus; and (6) all even fell asleep while waiting. Nevertheless, five were not accepted. And when they cried to Jesus, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us,” he replied, “I do not know you” (see Matt. 25:11–12).
The point of Gerstner’s message was that professing Christians should examine themselves to see if they really are Christians, knowing that a mere profession of faith is not enough. The study was so powerful that a number of people told me afterward that they did indeed begin to wonder whether they had truly been born again.
Self-Examination and Assurance
Perhaps you began to wonder about your own state at the end of the previous study. There I was trying to show that (according to Romans) there are not three categories of people in this life—those who are Christians, those who are not Christians, and those who are Christians but live as if they were not—but rather only two types—those who are dead in their sins and are therefore as unresponsive to God as dead people, and those who have been made spiritually alive by the Holy Spirit and are therefore following Jesus Christ in true discipleship. I acknowledged that Christians do sin, sometimes very badly. But a person who is on the path of discipleship gets up again and goes forward with Christ, while the unbeliever does not. In fact, the unbeliever is not on the path of true discipleship at all.
If teaching like this shakes you a bit, it is probably good for you to be shaken—particularly if you have been taking sin lightly. The Bible says that we are to examine ourselves to make sure of our calling (2 Peter 1:10). We should not be at ease in this matter. We should not rest until we are sure that we really do rest in Christ Jesus.
Yet we are studying Romans 8, and if you remember my introductory study, you will recall that the chapter’s purpose is not to instill doubt in believers but rather the exact opposite. It is to give them assurance. Romans 8 teaches that if you are truly in Christ, nothing in all creation will be able to separate you from God’s love (v. 39). I suppose that is why, having called us to examine ourselves by sharply contrasting those who live according to the sinful nature and those who live according to the Spirit (vv. 5–8), Paul continues by showing, in a most encouraging manner, who a Christian really is (vv. 9–11).
His outline is simple. He talks about the Christian’s past, present, and future. The past is discussed in verse 9. The present is discussed in verse 10. The future is discussed in verse 11.
The Christian’s Past
Verse 9 discusses the Christian’s past. It is important, because it makes clearer than any other verse in this chapter the very point I have been making: that the description of those who are not controlled by the sinful nature but who live in accordance with the Holy Spirit applies to all Christians, not just to so-called spiritual ones. In other words, there is no ground for the doctrine of the “carnal Christian” here. Notice the apostle’s ruthless logic: (1) if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Christ; (2) if you belong to Christ, you have the Spirit of Christ; and (3) if you have the Spirit of Christ, you will not be controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit. In other words, if you belong to Jesus, you will live like it. If you do not live like it, you do not belong to him, regardless of your outward profession.
But this is meant to be encouraging, as I said, which is why Paul begins the first sentence as he does. He is writing to the believers in Rome and says to these believers, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit.” That is, he is assuming that these professed Christians really are Christ’s, and he is trying to explain the difference their new identification with Jesus has made and will make in the future.
What difference has it made? Well, when we look to the past, which is what the apostle does first, we see that as Christians we have been lifted out of our former sinful or fleshly state and into the realm of the Spirit. We are now “in the Spirit,” and, as Paul also says here, the Spirit is “in” us.
This is an absolutely critical thing, for it means that being a Christian is not merely a matter of adopting a particular set of intellectual or theological beliefs, however true they may be. It involves a change of state, which is accomplished, not by us, but by God who saves us. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “It is not that a man just changes his beliefs and no more. No, he was in the realm of the flesh, and he is now in the realm of the Spirit. He was dominated by the flesh before, and governed by it. … He is now in a realm which is governed and controlled and dominated by the Spirit.” You and I cannot make this change ourselves. It is something God does.
Paul said the same thing in Romans 5, where he wrote that the Christian is no longer under the reign of sin unto death but instead has come under the reign of God’s grace in Christ. The fact that it is “of grace” shows that God has done it.
This change also means that being a Christian is not a matter merely of living in a Christian manner either, important as that also is. If you are a Christian, you will live like one. That is what we have been seeing throughout our studies of Romans 5–8 and were discussing in the previous study especially. But living like a Christian, at least in an external, observable sense, does not in itself mean you are one. Many unbelievers live outwardly moral lives.
A Christian is someone who has been delivered from one realm, the realm of sin and death, and has been transferred to the realm of God’s Spirit, which is life. This, of course, is something God has himself done, and it means that “salvation is of the Lord” and that it is all of grace. It is because of this—because salvation is of God and not of ourselves—that it is possible to speak of the Christian’s eternal security, as Paul does. The only reason we can be assured of our salvation is because salvation is a work of God, whose ways are always perfect, whose promises are never broken, and who does not change his mind.
The Christian’s Present
Verse 10 describes the Christian’s present state, saying that “if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.” In some versions of the Bible the word spirit in this verse is printed with a capital S, as if referring to the Holy Spirit, but this is certainly an error. The verse is referring to our spirit and should be printed with a lowercase s, as in the New International Version. It is a reference to our being born again.
The difficulty of this verse is with the clause “your body is dead because of sin.” What does this mean? “Body” (Greek, sōma) clearly refers to our literal human bodies, not to some “mortal principle” within us. But in what sense is this body dead, since our mortal bodies are in this life clearly alive? Some have taken “your body is dead” to teach that the tendency of the body to draw us into sin has been completely destroyed or overcome. I discussed this several times in my treatment of Romans 6 and 7, where Paul does speak of having died to the past and of having been made alive to God. But the difficulty with this view is that in the earlier chapters it is the “self” who has died, that is, the old self. And when Paul speaks of the body, as he does in Romans 6:11–14, his point is not that the body is dead but, on the contrary, that it is the source of our continuing troubles and struggles. We have to overcome it.
In view of this, it seems best to take “your body is dead because of sin” to refer to the fact that our physical bodies have the seeds of literal death in them and will eventually cease to live: “For the wages of sin is death …” (Rom. 6:23). Yet the contrast in verse 10 is the important thing. Although our physical bodies will die and are, in a certain sense, as good as dead now, our spirits have been made alive by the Holy Spirit whom the Father has sent to do precisely that.
What does it mean to have our spirits made alive by the Holy Spirit? Paul is talking about the present experience of the Christian, remember. So he means that by the new birth the Spirit has made us alive to things we were dead to before.
- Alive to God. The first thing we have become alive to is God himself. Before we were born again, we may have believed in God. Indeed, the Bible says that only the fool does not. But God was not real to us. We had no true sense of who he was or what he was like. When we prayed—if we did pray—God seemed far off and unresponsive. However, when we were born again this changed. Now, although there is still much we do not know about God and although his ways are still often strange and puzzling to us, we do not feel that God is unreal. On the contrary, he is more real to us even than life itself. We know that God loves us and is watching over us. We trust his wise management of our earthly affairs. God is particularly close in sickness and sorrow. We know that in the hour of our death we will pass from this world to the presence of the Lord.
- Alive to the Bible. We have not only become alive to God as the result of the Holy Spirit’s work; we have also become alive to the Word of God. It is in the Bible that God speaks to us clearly, regularly, and forcefully. Before we were born again, the Bible was a strange and closed book. Little in it seemed to make sense. We even found it to be boring. As Christians that has changed also. Today, when we read the Bible, we know that God himself is speaking to us in it. And not only does the Bible make sense; we know that it is true. Whatever the world may believe, whatever our nonbelieving teachers or friends may tell us to the contrary—we know that the words of the Bible pass the high standard of absolute truth and will endure forever, even when heaven and earth have passed away (Matt. 5:18).
We also find the Bible to be effective in our lives. We find that it changes us. We echo the words of Paul to young Timothy, when he said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
- Alive to the Spirit of God in other Christians. Finally, we have also become alive to the Spirit of God in other Christians. For just as the Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16), so does the Spirit within us bear witness with the Spirit in other believers that we are fellow members of the one spiritual family of God and that these others are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I would suggest the following as excellent tests of whether a person is a Christian—whether you are a Christian.
First, is God real to you? I do not mean, “Do you understand everything about God and God’s ways?” Of course, you do not, for you will never understand God completely. I simply mean: Is God real to you. When you pray do you know that you are really praying to him and that he is listening to you and will answer you? When you worship him in church, is it a real God you are worshiping?
Second, is the Bible a meaningful and attractive book to you? I do not mean, “Do you understand everything you read there?” Obviously you do not. But does it seem to be right when you read it? Are you attracted to it? Do you want to know more?
Finally, are you drawn to other Christians? Do you want to be with them? Do you enjoy their fellowship? Do you sense how much you and they have in common? If God is not real to you, if the Bible is not attractive, and if you are not drawn to other believers, why do you think you are a Christian? Probably you are not. On the other hand, if these things are true of you, you should be encouraged by them and press on in following after Jesus Christ.
The Christian’s Future
Verse 11 describes the Christian’s future, pointing forward to his or her physical resurrection. It is true, as verse 10 has said, that the “body is dead because of sin.” But although we die we shall all nevertheless rise again. The text says that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”
There are two common mistakes in the interpretation of this verse that we should not fall into. Lloyd-Jones discusses them. The first misunderstanding is that the text is speaking not of a future physical resurrection but of some kind of moral resurrection now. True, there is a kind of “resurrection” in which we who have been dead in sin have been brought into newness of life and are now increasingly putting to death the deeds of the body and living to Christ and righteousness. But that is not what Paul is thinking of here. The comparison between the resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection makes his real meaning clear. The point is that God will raise us just as he raised Jesus.
The second mistake is to think of this in terms of “faith healing,” which some have done, supposing it to be a promise of perfect health for those who believe God will heal them. This idea is simply foreign to the context.
The verse is speaking about a future resurrection, and it is regarding it as certain for all who are in Christ. Indeed, it could hardly be stated with greater certainty, for in developing the point the apostle brings in each member of the Trinity, as if to say that our final resurrection is as certain as God himself. Earlier we had a statement relating to the deity of Christ. When Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit he spoke of him as both “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” (v. 9). Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. So these two verses together assert Christ’s deity. Here, however, it is not just the divine Christ but also the divine Father and divine Spirit who are in view. All three combine to guarantee our final resurrection. At the resurrection, being freed completely from sin’s dread penalty, power, and presence, we shall be with God in heaven forever.
Such is the past, present, and future of the Christian.
Ironside and the Gypsy
Whenever I think of the past, present, and future of the Christian, as our text in Romans causes us to do, I remember an anecdote told by the great Bible teacher and former pastor of the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, Harry A. Ironside. It is told in his study of Ephesians 2:1–10, which provides a similar description of what it means to be a Christian.
Ironside was riding on a train in southern California one Saturday when a gypsy got on and sat beside him. “How do you do, gentleman,” she said. “You like to have your fortune told? Cross my palm with a silver quarter, and I will give you your past, present, and future.”
“Are you very sure you can do that?” Ironside asked. “You see, I am Scottish, and I wouldn’t want to spend a quarter and not get my full value for it.”
The gypsy was very earnest. “Yes, gentleman,” she said. “I can give you your past, present, and future. I will tell you all.”
Ironside then said, “It is not really necessary for me to have my fortune told, because I have had it told already. It is written in a book. I have the book in my pocket.”
The gypsy was astonished. “You have it in a book?” she said.
“Yes,” said Ironside, “and it is absolutely infallible. Let me read it to you.” He then reached in his pocket, pulled out his New Testament and began to read from chapter 2 of Ephesians: “ ‘As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.’
“That is my past,” he said.
The woman had been startled when he pulled the New Testament from his pocket and now tried to get away. “That is plenty,” she protested. “I do not want to hear more.”
“But wait,” Ironside said. “There is more. Here is my present, too: ‘But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. …’ ”
“No more,” the gypsy protested.
“But,” said Ironside, “you must hear my future, and you are not going to have to pay me a quarter for it. I am giving it to you for nothing. It says, ‘… in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.’ ”
By now the gypsy was halfway down the aisle of the train, saying, “I took the wrong man!”
We are dealing with a different text here, of course, and the specifics of the past, present, and future described in Romans 8:9–11 vary from what is said about them in Ephesians 2. But it is the same idea. Christians are people whose past has been altered. Before, they were dead in sin; now they are alive in Christ. Their present has been altered, too. They have been awakened to the reality of God, the beauty of the Scriptures, and the presence of the Spirit of God in other Christians. Theirs is a whole new world. Finally, they have a changed future before them. For in time death will be overcome, and they will be raised in a new resurrection body, like the resurrection body of Jesus, and will be with God and Jesus Christ forever.
Are you a Christian? By all means, ask that question of yourself. Be sure of the answer. But when you are sure, be sure of this truth, too: that nothing in heaven or earth will ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that your future will be even better than is your life with Jesus now.
 Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 415–420). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 805–820). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.