Life through the Spirit: Romans 8

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
Romans 8:5-8

To understand Romans 8:5-8, we must first understand the context. The author has set the stage of showing a tension between the mind being a slave to God’s law but also a slave to sin in the sinful nature (Romans 7:21-24, 25). This continues to Romans 7:25 where he exclaims “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”. One might wonder what he is on about. This is where he comes in to explain himself. In Romans 8:1-4, he explains that the law of the Spirit of life has already set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2). And all this was done because Christ came in sinful flesh, became a sin offering that sinful flesh might be condemned so that we can meet the righteous requirements of the law. That is why he gives thanks to God for His deliverance through Jesus Christ in verse 25.

Romans 8:4 goes on to say that we “do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”, so we know that the author afirms that we already live according to the Spirit. And again in Romans 8:9, the author says that the readers are “not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit” Other translations also read “are not controlled by the flesh but by the Spirit”, a continuation from the previous train of thought, to affirm the reader again that their position is already in the Spirit.

Note the parallels between Romans 8:1-2 and Romans 8:6 – the Spirit is life in us while the flesh is death and has already been delt with. Also see the parallels between Romans 8:9 and Romans 8:5 – we are already controlled by the Spirit and not the flesh. It is clear that Romans 8:5-8 is not written to persuade the reader to choose the right mindset, its basic assumption is that the reader has already made the right choice and is already in the right mindset. Right at the start, the passage sets the stage that you can only live one way and have one mindset – flesh or Spirit. They are spoken of as two different entities, two different minds, and the reader is already in the right mind.

The words “set on” is better translated as “have their outlook shaped by” (NET). The connotation is different; while “set on” means what the mind is preoccupied with, “outlook” is a matter of orientation or how we look. The meaning of these words is primarily about world view and not preoccupation (NET notes). Our world view is a fundamental orientation in the way we view and understand everything – ourselves, others and the world. We do not easily switch our world view, it is the bedrock of our thinking. It is our core philosophy through which we orientate ourselves to the world around us. It is not the split second thoughts and decisions, it is the framework from which our thoughts and decisions are based on.

The correct understanding of this passage is that it is written as a descriptive passage to contrast the features and end result of the two different mindsets, focusing more on the flesh mindset – notice that verses 7 and 8 speak specifically about the result of the fleshly mind. The author writes without the use of “you” and chooses “those who” instead because it creates a disassociation with the reader. The reader then understands that when he describes the fleshly mind, he isn’t describing them.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life 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 because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Romans 8:9-11

Romans 8:9-11 makes the same description, but this time from the mindset of the Spirit. It focuses on the end result and benefits of having the mindset of the spirit, such as “Spirit gives life because of righteousness” and “will also give life to your mortal bodies because ofhis Spirit who lives in you”. In these verses, the death and hostility to God spoken about in verse 7 and 8 is contrasted to the life and righteousness granted by Christ in verses 10 and 11. It clarifies that even though we will die from sin in this life, the Spirit that raised Christ will also raise us up. Note the multiple use of “you” here, instead of “those who” in the previous passage. The writer wants the reader to associate this life and righteousness with themselves.

Note that the use of the word “if” does not mean that the reader might not have the “Spirit of Christ” in them. It is to connect the cause to the effect as shown in v10, “if Christ is in you, then even…” Meaning, the reader should have no doubt that the effect is such.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
Romans 8:12-13

Here, after the author has spent so much time explaining that our position is already in the Spirit and that the consequence for us is already life and righteousness in Christ and not death and hostility from God, he goes on to mention our obligation to live according to what we have already attained (Philippians 3:16). This is because what we live by (our works) shows our position (our faith). How we live is the evidence of what we believe.

But the author knows that it is a long and hard road to live according to the Spirit and at times we fail and sometimes we even imagine ourselves to have fallen away into hostility from God and death. So he brings up this analogy:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Romans 8:14-15

This is important because it cements our salvation as apart from our works. We need not live in fear that our works are not good enough or that we will be rejected by God. We are not to see ourselves as slaves, but as children, whose position is fixed and cannot be changed. We are to know that we are already accepted and loved and operate from that position. We are bonded in this position by the Spirit – that we have already “received”. So we live in victory and claim this closeness with God that we dare to call him “Abba, Father”!

Romans 8 is titled Life Through The Spirit in the NIV and rightfully so, it describes perfectly how I should live my life. I should live knowing that I do not have any condemnation because the Spirit in me gives life and righteousness, having my mind already set on the Spirit, I bask in full confidence of my adoption and sonship. What a joyful way of living!

Father, I live knowing that I am secure in you. I live in full confidence of being your son. I live with my whole outlook in life controlled by you. Everyday I know that there is no condemnation for me and that my life in you results in life and peace. I live to meet the obligation of already having attained your favour!


To live

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
Philippians 1:18-26 (NIV)

“Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” – What a view of life and death! There is so much to grasp from Paul’s words. In a short passage, he models a view of life and death that offers life even in death.

Paul could afford to rejoice because he was entirely confident of his deliverance. This is because Christ was the source and reason for his deliverance. He would be delivered with “prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (v19, See also: 2 Corinthians 5:5) so that “Christ will be exalted in his body” (v20). Although he didn’t mention what deliverance means we know that he was not deluded in reality; Paul understood that the prospect of death was just as real as the chance of his release. Even in the face of this harsh reality, he stood with “confident hope” that he would have “complete boldness” (v20) for Christ to be exalted. That was how he has always lived and that is what he desires even in the face of death. He wasn’t fussed that he had to give up this mortal body. Paul’s view of his body (and perhaps time on earth) was that it was just a tool for exalting Christ. In the use and disposal of this body, what is most important is that Christ is exalted. (See also 2 Corinthians 4, “treasure in jars of clay”)

Paul then exposes something of himself, he says “I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two.” (v22-23) Not suprising, his personal choice would have been to be with Christ, “which is better by far”. He is so confident of being with Christ and the joy that will bring (See also, 2 Corinthians 5:1-3,8) that he yearns for it. He has no fear of death like most do, instead he looks forward to that day of deliverance. But his priority  and agenda was not himself, but “for the sake of” (v23,25) the church. Being sure that there is still “productive work” (v22) waiting for him, he is certain that release is coming his way. His release did not just mean life for himself, but faith and confidence for the church. Paul’s living and walking testimony of life builds such faith, joy and confidence in Christ!

Paul sums up his life well, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (v21). Christ was so all encompassing in his life that living IS Christ. Christ isn’t just the reason, Christ defined his entire life for as long as he was to stay alive. To him, Jesus was the source, the sustenance, the agenda, the goal all the way to the end of life. Paul lived the reality of Jesus as his way, truth and life (John 14:6). So much so that being in prison and facing death didn’t phase him much at all!

What a view of life and surety of life after death! What an ability to lay aside his mortal body and personal agenda for Christ our Lord! And all that in such dire circumstance!

This passage wasn’t just about sharing his view and life. It was about modelling it for the Philippians. They were facing persecuting as well (v30) and Paul was revealing his secret to facing persecution and opposition with a smile. What an example for all of us to follow!