How would you answer if I were to ask, “Who are you?” No doubt you’d say things about where you’re from, what you enjoy, and what you do for a living. As we look to Romans 8, Paul states our identity up front: we’re “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1–2). As we saw in the previous article, that means we’re justified and no longer condemned. Our assurance is a Christ-centered reality. In addition, Paul mentions the Holy Spirit nineteen times in verses 1–27. In other words, because we’re in Christ we’re also in the Spirit. In this second article, I’d like to exposit and apply verses 5–17 as Paul proclaims assurance as a Spirit-produced reality.
Contrasting Identities (Rom. 8:5–8)
A Different Kind of People. The ESV refers to “those who live according to the flesh” and “those who live according to the Spirit.” The Greek word translated “live” (ontes), however, is better translated as “are”: He actually says “those who are according to the flesh” versus “those who are according to the Spirit.” To be “according to the flesh” is to be born dead in sin, under condemnation, and in bondage to sin and death. To be “according to the Spirit” is to be born again, alive in the Spirit, not under condemnation, and liberated from sin and death. John Owen said, “The difference between these two states is great . . . the distance in a manner infinite, because an eternity in blessedness or misery doth depend upon it.” There are those whose lifestyle is a living out of their reality of being “according to the flesh.” Then there are those whose lifestyle is a living out of their being “according to the Spirit”—that is, the Holy Spirit. What’s the big difference? The Spirit.
A Different Kind of Power. A while back, my second son and I read a book about classic cars, which also described how engines work. Engines used to be steam powered. Water was boiled, the steam turned a crank, and that turned wheels. But cars were slow. Eventually the internal combustion engine was developed. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the internal combustion engine clearly made it possible for us to have faster cars. Vehicles before and after had engines, but they used different things to power them.
Similarly, Paul says there are two different empowerments when it comes to human beings. Some are empowered by “the flesh,” others by “the Spirit.” To be empowered by the flesh means living according to our own selfish desires, not God’s. Augustine described our sinful state as being incurvatus in se, curved in on itself. This is our natural state apart from grace. Yet Christians, Paul says, are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Of course, sometimes we may not feel like we have that power. We might say: “But I’m selfish. I’m easily tempted. I give in to the works of the flesh.” However, the difference on this side of glory between those who are empowered by the Spirit and those who are empowered by the flesh isn’t that the former are sinless. The difference is that those who are empowered by the Spirit struggle with being led by self or the Spirit whereas those empowered by the flesh never struggle against being led by the self but instead follow the self. Those who are led by the Spirit struggle against the flesh even though sometimes they follow the flesh. In the main, the desire and direction of their hearts are to please God rather than self.
A Different Kind of Passion. The contrast is those who “set their minds on the things of the flesh” versus those who “set their minds the things of the Spirit.” Mind doesn’t mean what’s going on mentally. Paul is speaking of the center of who we are in total: mind, will, and affections. Before Jesus took over my life, my burning passion was to play in the NBA. This led to my teenage years’ being spent in playing basketball every moment I could: dribbling a basketball as I walked to school, shooting a ball up at the ceiling as I lay on the floor at night, playing every moment I could. Paul says: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. . . . Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1–2, emphasis added).
A Different Kind of Purpose. The purpose of our passions is to be taken up with “the things of the Spirit”: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). The things of the Holy Spirit are those things that lead to our holiness. One purpose of our being justified is that we’ll be sanctified as well. Sometimes, however, we confess: “I don’t feel very spiritual. My life doesn’t look very holy.” Yet while we may not feel particularly enlivened by the Spirit now, the Word says that we are. Have you seen those dermatology photographs that show not what you can already see in the mirror but what your skin really looks like? There’s the “you” that you can see, and then there’s the “you” that you can’t see. What can’t be seen yet is nonetheless real, so we must embrace our hidden identity by faith.