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The 8th chapter of Romans is calculated to give hope, comfort, and assurance to the believer. It begins with a declaration that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus and ends with the ringing assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. In between, we find that we may address God as “Abba, Father,” that our future glory infinitely outweighs our present suffering, and that God causes all things to work together for our good. Moreover, we are assured that God is for us, that having given up His Son to die in our place He will surely give us all things, and that no one can bring a charge against us in His presence.

The apex of Paul’s teaching about the eternal security of God’s elect, however, is found in verses 29–30:

“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

This passage of Scripture has been called “the golden chain of salvation.” The chain consists of five links—foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. Although the links of a chain normally would be expressed as nouns, here they are listed as verbs. That is because God is one who acts. He is the one who foreknew His elect, predestined them to be conformed to the image of His Son, called them to trust in Christ, justified them, and glorified them.

Not only is this golden chain forged by God Himself, it is all expressed in the past tense, as an accomplished fact. It is easy for us to understand how God foreknew (that is, set His special love upon) us, predestined us, called us, and justified us. These four links are all in our own personal histories. But what about glorification? That is certainly in the future. Why didn’t Paul write, “… and will one day glorify us”?

It is because He sees this final step in our salvation as so certain that he refers to it as already having happened. It is unthinkable to Paul that God, having chosen His own before the foundation of the world, would stop short of bringing them to final, eternal glory in Christ. Using the past tense to refer to the future is Paul’s way of declaring the certainty of the event. God’s eternal plan for all of His elect will indeed come to pass. You can rest assured that if you have been justified in the past, you certainly will be glorified in the future.

There is, however, a dark side to Romans 8. In two instances, Paul speaks of death; not physical death, which we all will experience, but spiritual death. In verse 6 he writes, “For to be carnally [fleshly] minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” And in verse 13 Paul writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

There are literally thousands upon thousands of people who think they are safely on their way to heaven but who actually live according to the flesh.

Who are the people that are carnally or fleshly minded? It is those who “live according to the flesh,” and “set their minds on the things of the flesh” (v. 5). Paul uses the word flesh here as an expression of the fallen, sinful nature with which we all are born. To live according to the flesh and to set one’s mind on the things of the flesh is to be ruled by one’s sinful nature. It describes all who have not been born again by the Spirit of God.

In these verses, then, Paul teaches that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between living under the rule of one’s sinful nature and ultimately experiencing eternal, spiritual death. In verse 13, he puts it very plainly: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die.”

These sobering statements seem contradictory to all that we see in the remainder of this glorious chapter on assurance. On the one hand, we have seen that our assurance of final glory is anchored in the eternal purpose of God. On the other hand, we are warned that if we live according to the flesh, we will die an eternal death under the judgment of God. How do we reconcile the promises and the warnings? If the promises are true, are the warnings real? If so, are they addressed to the same people?

The answer to these questions is found in verses 1–4. There Paul describes those who no longer face condemnation (because they are in Christ Jesus) as the same people “who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” In other words, Paul makes an absolute connection between justification (no condemnation) and sanctification (walking according to the Spirit). You cannot have one without the other.

In recent years, determined efforts have been made to separate the two. It is as if Paul wrote, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus even though they live according to the flesh.” Though such a statement flies in the face of the entire New Testament, it is effectively being taught and practiced in much of the evangelical world today. It is the idea embodied in the time-worn cliche, “Once saved, always saved,” with its unspoken conclusion of “regardless of how you live.”

The apostle Paul would recoil with horror at such thinking. He would say, “If you live according to your sinful nature, under its impulses and desires, you will die.” He would say: “If you have been justified (no condemnation), the Spirit of God has come to dwell in you and you cannot continue to live under the controlling influence of your sinful nature. If you are indeed still living under its control, it is evident that you have not been justified.”

Regardless of a profession that might have been made, Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh you will die.”

These are sobering thoughts because there are literally thousands upon thousands of people who think they are safely on their way to heaven but who actually live according to the flesh. Some of them “asked Jesus into their hearts” as small children or completed a confirmation class as teenagers. Others went forward at an evangelistic crusade or prayed a prayer as a result of a one-on-one witnessing encounter. I do not want to belittle any of these evangelistic efforts. But the fact is that, in thousands of lives, there is no apparent change from walking according to the flesh to walking according to the Spirit. By their lives, these people effectively have denied their profession and, worse yet, probably have deceived themselves about their eternal destiny. It is to these people Paul would issue his warning: “If you live according to the flesh you will die.”

Such a warning is applicable not only to those who are living lives of open carelessness or flagrant sin. The flesh can be refined as well as crude. Many people who live according to the flesh can be found in our churches on Sunday morning. Some are nice, decent, respectable neighbors or even relatives. But their minds are set on the things of the flesh, not on the things of the Spirit. They have no desire for God, His will, or His glory.

Sometimes people renounce the Christian faith openly after having professed to trust Christ. The word for this behavior is apostasy, which means “a renunciation or abandonment of a previously held belief or loyalty.” It is a deliberate action. Much more common, however, is what we might call “practical apostasy.” This is a term for those who have made a profession of faith in Christ but who actually walk according to the flesh, not according to the Spirit. This is indeed a dangerous path to travel, for regardless of a profession that might have been made, Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh you will die.”

To one church, the apostle wrote, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith.” (2 Cor. 13:5). This is sound advice for all of us. We need to examine ourselves honestly. Are we walking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit? I’m not talking about sinless perfection; I’m talking about the dominant characteristic of our lives. Are our lives characterized by an earnest desire and a sincere effort, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, to live in a way that honors God? Or are we basically living according to the dictates of our own human desires?

The solution to practical apostasy is not to try harder. We are not justified by good works but by faith in Jesus Christ. If upon examining ourselves we find that we seem to be living according to the flesh, we need to turn to Jesus Christ, not to our own human efforts. When we are truly justified by faith in Christ, we will walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Oftentimes genuine Christians will question whether they are truly justified because they are struggling with some persistent sin in their lives. I have experienced such questioning myself on occasion. What should we do at these times? I have simply gone to God in prayer, pleading the promise of Jesus that “ ‘the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out’ ” (John 6:37). This is all we can do. This is what we must do. We must always keep in mind that sanctification—what Paul calls “walking according to the Spirit”—is not the cause of our justification but the result of it. But it is the inevitable result. May none of us ever be guilty of deliberate or practical apostasy.

The Will to Fight

The Way of Sacrifice

Keep Reading To the Church at Rome ... The Book of Romans

From the January 2002 Issue
Jan 2002 Issue