“For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6 ESV)
Here are two motivations with two very different results. The flesh leads to death. Yes, physical death, but even in life the flesh-led life is a kind of dying. Death is separation and distortion of who we were made to be. Sin takes us further and further from God’s good purposes and blessings. Sin is a long path away from God.
I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of aging rock stars. They don’t look good. Drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll hollow out your life. The local paper posts pictures of recent arrests. Theft, domestic violence, drugs, etc. The people in those photos look terrible. Why? Sin is a journey further and further from ourselves made in the image of God.
But the Spirit-led life is the opposite. It draws us closer to God. It renews our humanity. It resurrects us to who we were made to be and directs our lives in the direction of spiritual priorities.
Paul isn’t exhorting Christians to live by the Spirit (although he does elsewhere). What he is saying in Romans 8 is that true Christians do. Why? We’ve been set free by God. We have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. God is actively doing a work in our lives. He set us free in justification and he is in the process of setting us free from all the sinful ways of thinking and living. As Stott points out, “Thus God justifies us through his Son and sanctifies us through his Spirit.”
This new life is by the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, we can neither understand the gospel nor live it out. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
The story is told of famous British politicians William Wilberforce and William Pitt. In the decades following the American Revolution, they were close friends. It was quite a power friendship as today both have statues in their honor in Westminster Abbey. Pitt was Prime Minister of Britain at age 24. Wilberforce was a devoted Christian. Pitt was a cultural Christian. Wilberforce had a preacher he desperately wanted Pitt to hear. Pitt finally went with him. The whole sermon Wilberforce basked in the truth. When it was done, Pitt said to Wilberforce, “You know Wilberforce, I had not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.”
Perhaps you are William Pitt today. None of this makes any sense. It certainly doesn’t thrill you nor does it interest you. Why? Has God the Holy Spirit taken a hold of the core of your life? Is your life separation from God or movement toward God? Death or life and peace?
Without the Holy Spirit, the gospel doesn’t do anything.
A few weeks ago, on one of these really cold nights, Jennifer called me. She was by the mall on Highway 30. She said, “The van’s battery is dead. It won’t turn over at all.” OK. I said, “We have jumper cables in the van, could anyone give you a jump?” A couple was walking past, and she asked them to help. They said yes. She called me back, “It still isn’t working.” OK. I gathered the daughters and we headed up there confident. No problem. I’m the husband. I got this. I pulled our car up, hooked up the cables. Nothing. We let it charge. It’s getting dark. Still nothing. Did I mention it was cold out? I said, “I think we need to go to AutoZone and get a new battery.” So, we did.
The manager said, “Before you buy a new battery, how about I look at it?” Now that’s customer service. I’m now a big fan of AutoZone on Highway 30. He drove over and hooked up the cables. Gave it a try. Nothing. Dead. He took our battery out and we went back to the store. Their computers were down, and they said, “You have to pay cash.” Who has $130 cash on them? Not us. What do you do? I called an elder in our church who brought the money up. Bought the new battery. The manager went with us back to our van. Hooked it up. Guess what happened? It immediately turned over and started.
I was so moved by the manager’s help I offered him some of the elder’s money as a thank you. He declined. So, let’s all do business with AutoZone on 30 by the mall. Great people.
What’s the point? The unbeliever is the van with a dead battery. All our attempts to make it work couldn’t make it work. You can have Billy Graham on the TV 24/7, put verses up all around the house, and keep the car radio on Moody. The battery is totally dead. Humans can’t jump start the dead human heart.
But God can. How did God set us free? He didn’t try to resuscitate our old nature. He didn’t try to energize our flesh and make it go. That’s why William Pitt had no idea what the preacher was talking about and explains why you may have no idea what I am talking about.
What’s needed? You need a new battery. You need a new heart. You need what only God can give you. You need the Holy Spirit who gives life and brings peace. Repent of your sin and trust in Jesus. When you do, you get a new battery. The core of our lives is directionally changed from flesh and self and sin toward God and truly a whole new life. Where are you today?
You may say, I’m really not sure. Galatians is another letter by Paul which helpfully shows the difference between a life directionally led by the flesh and a life directionally led by the Spirit.
Get this, Paul is not urging unbelievers to try and show these fruits in their lives. It won’t happen! It would be like me urging my van to start with a dead battery.
This passage is both an explanation and an exhortation for sinners to turn in faith to Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. The net effect is a Spirit-led life whose ongoing reality is life and peace.
“Deliverance from the tyranny of sin, effected through the atoning work of Christ, as an experienced ongoing reality, is the work of the indwelling, life-giving Spirit.” (Gordon Fee)
Freedom. Freedom not to sin. Freedom not to live motivated by sin but by Spirit. One kills. The other gives life. One empties my humanity. The other restores and renews. Indwelling sin or indwelling Spirit? Which is the controlling principle of your life?
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2019 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
 John Stott, The Message of Romans, p. 219.
 Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, p. 528.
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