Dr. Robert R. Seyda



John Stott is very clear in his analysis, and sums it up by suggesting that there are two categories of people that Paul addresses here: The unregenerate who are “in the flesh,” and the regenerate who are “in the Spirit.” They also have two different perspectives or mindsets that guide them: The “mind of the flesh” for the unregenerate, and “the mind of the Spirit.” for the regenerate. This leads to two patterns of conduct: Those who live according to the “dictates of the flesh,” and those who live according to the “dictates of the Spirit.” This then results in two opposite states or conditions: Those who are “headed for eternal punishment,” and those who are “headed for eternal life.” The first group is those who are “at war with God,” and the second group is those who are “at peace with God.” From Stott’s point of view, the direction that our mind takes, and where it leads us based on what we think is the most important to God will play a key role in both our present demeanor and our final destiny.1 This leads then into what Paul says in the following verses about those ruled by their sinful nature and those ruled by their spiritual nature.

Jewish scholar David Stern combines Romans 8:5-8 and then points to Romans 6:11 where Paul proposes a revolutionary solution to humanity’s problems: “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God, by your union with the Messiah Yeshua.” By doing so, Paul offers a radical psychology to explain the reason for his revolutionary solution. It is a basic psychological fact of life – deeper than any Freudian concept of id, ego, and superego. It exceeds any genetic, physiological, behavioral, environmental, or educational conditioning. It offers more enlightenment on the source of the problem than birth traumas, complexes, sexual experiences, interpersonal communication, family background or games people play.

It is the revelation that the “sinful nature”’ (called the “flesh,”) is utterly irredeemable by any effort mankind can invent or institute. This is why the Bible offers no self-help programs, psychotherapeutic methods, remedial educational courses, environmental changes, or resolutions that allow an individual to improve so it will enable them to please God by their own doing. That’s because all of these things are based on the reality that having a mind controlled by the sinful old nature is fatal. The only answer is living in the Spirit, which is abundant life and shalom (peace). But not only peace, but tranquility, safety, well-being, welfare, health, contentment, success, comfort, wholeness, and integrity. In short, it gives everything secular and popular psychology promises but cannot deliver.

Stern believes that this is why Yeshua said, “You must be born-again from above.”2 Also, Paul wrote, “If anyone is united with the Messiah, he is a new creation – the old has passed; look, what has come is fresh and new!”3 If there were no such thing as being given a new nature, then Paul’s psychology would paint the most pessimistic picture of the human condition – as he himself admits.4 However since there is a new nature, the solution is letting one’s mind be controlled by, and through, the Holy Spirit. This offers any hope mankind will have to escape their ultimate condemnation. The philosophies and psychologies of the world only offer therapeutic solutions which are temporary and designed to fail.5 It is God’s Word that reveals a divine solution which helps explain why Jesus went to the cross to make it possible for those who are bound by sin to be set free to live for God and do it His way, not man’s way.6

Verse 9: But you are not ruled by your sinful nature. You are ruled by the Spirit if that Spirit of God really lives in you. But whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Christ.

Paul clearly shows that he is writing to believers who dealt with the sinful nature factor in their past life. The question becomes whether or not he is encouraging them to continue in their growth or is admonishing them because they have stopped growing in the Spirit? As he proceeds with this topic, it appears that he is both motivating them and challenging them to stay faithful and press on toward the goal set by their calling in Christ. But it is also important to make a distinction between the indwelling of the Spirit of God in the believer as the source of the new life in Christ, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit to give power for service. In this case, it is the former. The infilling with power will come later.

This renewal of dedication for the things of God can be seen in what God said to Ezekiel about bringing His people back to a place of good standing with Him. God said: “I will put a new spirit in them. I will take away that heart of stone, and I will put a real heart in its place.7 Paul will address this later on in his call for a renewal of spirit and mind.8 But for now, Paul wants the Roman believers to know what he also told the Corinthians: “You should know that you yourselves are God’s temple. God’s Spirit lives in you.9 And as Temples of the Holy Spirit, Paul warns them that there is no room for any of the idols they used to serve while under the control of sin.10 Not only that, but Paul also taught that the gift of the Spirit was a down payment that guaranteed all future benefits of their new found freedom to serve, worship, and praise God at a level equal to His glory.11

So for Paul, it wasn’t only the practice of good manners and the development of holy virtues that made a person recognizable as belonging to God. These can often be duplicated on the outside. It what’s on the inside that Paul points to as true evidence that God’s Spirit is operating inside, not imposing some form or ritual on the outside. This was important not only for the here and now, but the hereafter. He told the Corinthians: “Everyone will be raised to life in the right order. Christ was first to be raised. Then, when Christ comes again, those who belong to Him will be raised to life.”12 And to the Galatians Paul wrote: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful self. They have given up their old selfish feelings and the evil things they wanted to do. We get our new life from the Spirit, so we should follow the Spirit.13

There were Jews in the congregation in Rome, and this idea of the Spirit of God living in the hearts of believers, as being the Spirit of the Messiah, is pointed out in their own writings. For instance, in the Arba’ah Turim’s commentary on Genesis 1:2 we read that the Spirit which hovered over a sphere without form and void of life was called: “the spirit of Messiah.”14 What a beautiful illustration of how the Holy Spirit hovers over the lifeless and barren souls of the unconverted until God speaks the the electrifying words, “Let there be light!” Then, everything comes alive and begins to grow and multiply, producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Early church preacher Chrysostom has an interesting take on this verse. As far as he’s concerned, there are somethings about us that are good, some are bad, and some are indifferent. For him, the soul and the flesh both belong to things indifferent, since each of these may become either good or bad. But the spirit belongs to things which are good and can never become anything else. On the other hand, the sinful mind belongs to things which are always bad.15 To put this principle in another light, we can say that an automobile, a knife, a gun, and a hammer are indifferent. In other words, they do not predisposed to take any predetermined action. Their use is generated by an activating and manipulating force. That force, in this case, a human being, can use these items for good or for evil purposes. So it is with the human body that is managed and controlled by an indwelling spirit. It is the nature of that spirit that determines a human’s mindset, and whether bodily members will be used for good or bad purposes. If it is unable to use these things for good, then another Spirit must come in and take charge, and that woould need to be the Spirit of God.

Early church scholar Pelagius notes that those over whom the Spirit of God is given charge will be occupied with spiritual things. And to know in whom the Spirit of God dwells is determined by the fruit everyone can see. That’s why Paul told the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, etc.’16 These fruit are a copy of the Spirit of Christ, who loved His enemies and prayed for them. His Spirit is one of humility, patience and all the virtues17.18 Even though Pelagius does not mention it here, there is little doubt he would agree that the works of the flesh pertain to those who are preoccupied with worldly pleasures.19

Martin Luther saw it this way: If you are going to live according to the new man, and according to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and in friendship and fellowship with God, then the Holy Spirit must be in you. Says Luther, if the Holy Spirit dwells in you, then by His indwelling we are made new creatures. As such, those who have the wisdom of the Spirit delight in God’s will and gladly heed it, for they have become like Him.20 So it is not a case of our imitating Christ by the way we live, but it is Christ emanating His life through us.

For John Calvin it is not a matter of whether or not the believer allows the Spirit of God to become the driving force in his or her life to promote all those things that please God. Rather, it is a case of whether or not the Holy Spirit resides in a person’s life that makes them a true believer. There is no doubt that Calvin is pointing at those in the church of the Middle Ages who simply went through the motions of being Christ-like. In fact, for Calvin it seems odd that these same people would turn around and accuse believers like himself of arrogance, when they were the real adversaries of the Gospel. And that’s because born-again believers dared to proclaim that the Spirit of Christ lived in them. The truth is, a believer must either deny Christ, or confess that they have become Christians through His Spirit. For Calvin, it was indeed dreadful to hear that some who called themselves Christians had so departed from the Word of God, that they not only boasted that they were Christians without God’s Spirit, but also ridiculed the faith of those who did.21

1 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

2 John 3:7

3 2 Corinthians 5:17

4 1 Corinthians 15:16-19

5 See Romans 7:12

6 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

7 Ezekiel 11:19

8 Romans 12:1-3

9 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19

10 2 Corinthians 6:16

11 Ephesians 1:14ff

12 1 Corinthians 15:23

13 Galatians 5:24-25

14 Ba’al ha-Turim (Master of the Rows): the name given to Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. His commentary on Jewish Law was called Arba Turim (Four Rows), after the four rows of jewels in the breastplate of the High Priest.

15 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 13

16 Galatians 5:22

17 See Matthew 5:44; Luke 23:34

18 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

19 Galatians 5:19-21

20 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 120

21 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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