Controlled Not by the Flesh, but by the Spirit

what-is-the-holy-spirit2-720x420I read through the book of Romans earlier this summer.  In chapter 8, I was struck by the contrasts that the Apostle Paul highlights between living in the flesh versus living in the Spirit.  In context, this expands on what Paul introduced back in Rom. 7:5-6.  This also connects with Paul’s contrast between the death that Adam brought to all and the life that Jesus Christ brings in Rom. 5:12-19

In this book, more than any other New Testament epistle, Paul indicates that when a person comes to faith in Jesus, there are irreversible changes, both external and internal, that God brings about, which gives them a new identity in Christ.  At the very moment of salvation, they are made right with God through Christ (justified) and begin to be transformed into Christlikeness (sanctified).  Justification is a one-time event; sanctification is a life-long process.  Both are gifts of His grace.  (For an original summary that traces Paul’s argument in the book of Romans, I invite you to read what I wrote while going to seminary that I posted on my blog in two parts several years ago.)

Let me unpack what Paul informs us in the first half of Romans 8 about those who live the flesh and those who are living by the Spirit.  Understanding the contrasts the Apostle Paul makes in Romans 8 will help to give us assurance that although we as Christians will always wrestle with our sinful nature in the course of this life, we are no longer merely in the flesh.  We have been changed.

What is the flesh?

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (vol. 2) highlights the theological significance of the flesh.  Flesh, by itself “represents the natural, created human aspect”, which only means that it is “weak, limited, and temporal.”  On the sixth day, God created humans in His own image; it was described as being “very good” (Gen. 1:31).  (See also Gen. 2:7.)  Human flesh by itself is not evil.  This is demonstrated by Jesus, who was fully human, with the very same limitations we have. 

However, we do see the flesh, with all of its weaknesses and limitations drifting naturally into sinful behavior.  Galatians 5:17 indicates that our fallen nature (residing more in the mind than the body) has inherently evil desires that are in opposition to God’s will for us.  These actions are described in more detail in Gal. 5:19-21.  I think we can all identify with at least one of these items on this list. 

What is true of those who are “in the flesh”?

Let me summarize the truths that Paul outlines in Romans 8, about those who are in the flesh.

  • Those who live according to the sinful nature (flesh) have set their minds on natural desires (8:5)
  • The mind of sinful man results in death (physical death/separation from God) (8:6)
  • The sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not and cannot submit to God’s law (8:7)
  • Those who are controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (8:8)
  • Those who live according to the sinful nature will die (8:12)

Christians could easily pull any of these verses out of context and apply these generic truths to their own lives.  However, in context, that Paul seems to be contrasting the identities of two groups of people.  What he states here is true of those who are not in Christ.  These are true of those who are not Jesus’ sheep.  All these things were true of every believer before coming to faith.  This sad description of what was true back then has been replaced by all of the things I will describe below.

The role of the Holy Spirit

In John 14:16-17, Jesus taught His disciples that the Father would send a Counselor who would always be with them and would also be in them.  Jesus explained that the Spirit would teach His followers and would remind them of what He said (John 14:26).  He would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).  Paul also clearly states that the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian.  (See Rom. 8:9). 

In the NIV Application Commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo reminds us of the critical role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life.  Moo states, “Possessing the spirit is the mark of being a new covenant believer, and his ministry must be basic to any description of what it means to be a Christian. . . Paul gives the Spirit the key role in mediating to us the blessings of our new life.” 

What does it mean to be “in Christ”?

Earlier in this epistle, the Apostle Paul laid out many of the gifts of God’s amazing grace that were true of both Jew and Gentile who came to faith in Jesus Christ.  For example, in Rom. 3:22, we read that those who believe in Christ are justified.  This changes their legal standing before God.  They are seen as righteous; they have a new identity in Christ.  They are no longer under Adam’s curse, but have become members of a new kingdom where what is true of Jesus is now true of them. 

In Rom. 6:3-7, Paul writes that all believers who were baptized into Christ (by faith and through the ritual of baptism) were symbolically baptized into (immersed in and identified with) Jesus’ death.  Paul explains that being identified with Jesus’ crucifixion and death results in being dead to sin’s power and that being identified with His resurrection gives them the power to live a holy life.

What is true of those who are in Christ?

Let me summarize the truths that Paul teaches in Romans 8 about those who are in Christ:

  • There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1)
  • They have been set free from the law of sin and death (8:2)
  • God’s righteous requirements of the law are fully met because of Jesus’ death (8:3-4)
  • They do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (8:4)
  • They have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (8:5)
  • The mind controlled by the Spirit results in life (abundant and eternal) and peace (8:6)
  • They are not controlled by the flesh but by God’s Spirit who indwells them (8:9)
  • Their body (flesh) may be sinful and is dead, but their spirit is alive (8:10)
  • God’s Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead lives in them and gives them life (8:11)
  • They have an obligation, not to live according to the flesh, but to put to death the misdeeds of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit (8:12-13)
  • They will be led by the Spirit of God because they are children of God (8:14)
  • They received the Holy Spirit who does not make them a slave to fear; rather, it makes them a beloved child of God, who can call their heavenly Father “Daddy” (8:15)
  • As children of God, they are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (8:17)

What Paul states above is true of those who are in Christ.  These are true of those who are Jesus’ sheep.  All these things are true of every believer.  Some of them are one-time changes by grace through faith when they became a Christian.  Other things Paul lists are ongoing things to pursue.

Identity is the key to victory over the flesh

Lest you think that I have mastered the application of these wonderful truths in my own life, let me be clear.  I have not.  I still struggle with my own fleshly tendencies.  Some of them were passed down from my father.  Some sinful habits I have no one else to blame but myself.  Some sins are relatively new.  Some of them have been a challenge to me off and on for my entire Christian life.

What helps me, and I think will be of help to my brothers and sisters in Christ, is for me to always keep in mind whose I am and who I am in Him.  I am not just a mere human.  I have been set free from sin.  I have been delivered.  God declares me righteous in His sight because Jesus has paid the penalty for my sin.  I am a new creature in Christ.  He is making me new every day.  If I focus on Jesus waiting for me at the finish line, and run the race in the power of the Holy Spirit, I run well.

About the author:


Russell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Fifty articles posted on this blog have been published on numerous Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

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