The Necessity of the Spirit’s Work: Romans 8:5-8

What is wrong with mankind?  That there is something wrong, there is no doubt.  Just witness all the wars, the injustice, the hate, the immorality.  But why?

The Biblical answer is not just that we do bad things because we are not properly educated, or that we do bad things because we saw someone else do them.  The problem with us is that by nature we are bad.  Jesus himself distinguished on multiple occasions between a tree and the fruit: a good tree produces good fruit and a corrupt tree produces bad fruit.  The tree determines the fruit.  In the same way, the heart determines the thoughts we think, the affections we have, the words we say, and the deeds we do.  In other words, the problem is not just that we sin, the problem is that we are sinners.  Another way to say this is that we are by nature sinful: we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3).

However, this Biblical truth has been disputed throughout history.  A lot of theologians have been embarrassed by the doctrine that human nature is inherently sinful.  They want to say that we are sinful because we sin, not that we sin because we are sinful.  To argue for the latter position, they say, is to remove all human responsibility.  

Nevertheless, this is what the Bible teaches.  It is the reason why God’s holy law cannot sanctify.  If we were indeed neutral in our nature, then it would not follow that God’s law would produce sin as a reaction against it by unredeemed people.  But this is what the apostle Paul has uniformly taught in this epistle, culminating in his mighty argument in chapter 7.  God’s law is impotent to change us, not because it is somehow deficient, but because we are somehow deficient.  

That is why we need more than just education to be saved.  We need redemption.  We need a person and a power from outside of us to come and save us and change us.  

The gospel is not a gospel about the power of man.  It is not about what we do to change ourselves.  Rather, it is a gospel about the power of God (Rom. 1:16).  It is about what God has done to save us and change us.  It is about what God has done to justify us and sanctify us.  This has been the burden of the apostle’s argument up to this point.  And as we’ve pointed out, in this chapter, the apostle is in some sense summarizing as well as developing upon the doctrines of chapters 1-7, and then showing how all these truths contribute to the security of the believer.  Thus, we are reminded that our justification is something that depends not upon us, but upon our union with Christ (8:1).  And we are reminded that our sanctification depends not on us but on the work of Christ for us and in us.  That is the point of verses 2-8.  

Now last time, we argued that the apostle is showing us that life in the Spirit is possible only through the work of Christ.  The Spirit does not somehow operate independently of the Son of God; rather, he is the Spirit of Christ (8:9), applying the work of Christ to the hearts of his people.  This is the basis of all our sanctification.  We are not only justified by union with Christ, we are also sanctified by union with Christ.

However, it might be argued that though the work of the Spirit in us is helpful, yet it is not necessary.  That is, some might argue that yes, the Spirit is there to help us out to make the right choices, and so on, but the Spirit is not absolutely necessary because every human being has the capacity, apart from the work of the Spirit, to obey God and do his will.  This, by the way, is really what has come to be identified with the teaching of the British monk Pelagius, who was rightly condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431.  One theologian states that “it was assuredly the chief intention of Pelagius to deprive Christians of their indolent reliance upon grace.”[1]

Paul was not a Pelagian. 

You can see that in the argument he makes in these verses.  How does he develop his argument?  He does so in the following steps:[2]

1.       Jesus died so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us (4a).

2.       The law is fulfilled when we walk a certain way, namely, by the Spirit and not by the flesh (4b).

3.       But we can only walk this way when we have a certain mindset: the mind of the Spirit (5).

4.       This mindset is produced by the Spirit who gives us life and peace (6).

5.       The reason why this is necessary is given in verses 7 and 8: because “flesh” – what we are by nature – is hostile to and cannot please God.

In other words, Paul argues from the effect back to the ultimate cause: we fulfill with law because we walk according to the Spirit, and we walk according to the Spirit because we have the mind of the Spirit, and we have the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit has given us spiritual life and peace.  And this is not just extra help along the way if we need it: it is absolutely necessary, and the reason why it is absolutely necessary is because we are by nature in the flesh, which means that we are by nature bent in towards ourselves and opposed to God.

It is important to note, that even though the apostle does not use the words “sinful nature” here, this is exactly what he is talking about in the phrases “set their minds on” used in verses 5, 6, and 7, and “in the flesh” versus being “in the Spirit.”  Thomas Schreiner, commenting on this text, writes that the Greek words behind these phrases “signify the direction of the will in human beings.  The terms cannot be confined to the mind alone but refer to the whole existence of a person . . . . Rom. 8:5-7 constitutes not an exhortation but a description of the mind-set of those of the flesh and those of the Spirit.”[3]  To talk about the “mind-set” of a person is to describe their nature in this context.

This means that Paul is not talking here about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit that believers experience.  Rather, he is talking about two different states or conditions in which we exist as humans.  You are either in the flesh or in the Spirt.  According to the apostle here, you cannot be in both.  As he will say in verse 9, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  And according to Paul, the reason why we need the Spirit is because the flesh is hostile to God, and as long as we are in the flesh, we will never walk according to the Spirit or fulfill the law.  Being comes before doing.  Our nature has to be changed in order for our lives to be changed.

Therefore, the doctrine which is taught by these verses is this: the work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary and essential to produce the type of life Paul is describing here.  God is not pleased with any work which comes from the flesh, which is what we are apart from the Spirit.  We need the Spirit of God to do his good work in us if we are to do anything truly pleasing to God (and that would include faith, see Heb. 11:6).

Another way to put this is that the Christian life is supernatural, not only in its beginning but also in it continuance.  One of the things that bothers me about modern Christianity is that most of it seems to depend more upon technique than it does the work of God (which I think can be more or less attributed in the evangelical church in the US to the unholy labors of Charles Finney).  If that is true about our churches and our own spiritual walk, then I wonder just how authentic they really are.  For according to Paul, the only way a true believer can explain why they are walking the way they are walking is because the Spirit of God has given them the power necessary to do so.

So how should we respond to this?  Let me give you three ways this doctrine helps us respecting our obligation to the lost, to the church, and then to ourselves.  I’m going to focus primarily on this first point, but there are some implications regarding the second and third items that we should be careful not to miss.

What this doctrine teaches us respecting our obligation to the lost.

Well, it teaches us that our efforts to bring anyone to Jesus are entirely futile unless God goes before us.  For the gospel confronts men and women, first and foremost, with the authority of God, with their need for redemption, and to see this they need to see the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God, and they are not going to see this unless their heart is changed.  Or, to put it in the language of verse 2, they need to be delivered from the law of sin and death – but the Holy Spirit is the only one who can do that.  As I noted above, the Bible makes it very clear that the Christian life is supernatural in its origin and in its maintenance.  It is spiritual (4-8); anything less than this is not Christianity.  

This is why the Bible makes it very clear that God is ultimately the one behind any real conversion (cf. 1 Cor. 3:7).  This is the reason why we read things like, “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21).  Or, in reference to the conversion of Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was being said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).  Or, with respect to the confession of Peter, who confessed his faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 16:16-17).  

It is how Paul describes the conversion of the Corinthians: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to earthly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:26-31).

It is why Jesus said this about those who rejected him: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). 

Now the lesson to draw from this is not that we don’t need to do anything for the conversion of the lost.  After all, it was in the context of the men of Cyprus and Cyrene preaching Jesus to the Hellenists that God’s hand moved people to faith.  It was in the context of Paul preaching the gospel to Lydia that God opened her heart to the gospel.  The Bible does not teach that God works independently of the preaching of the gospel, but through it.  So we don’t take this doctrine and sit on our hands and close our mouths to the lost.  Rather, we are to be like Paul, who had a great burden for the salvation of the lost (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1).  We are to evangelize the lost, we are to bring good news to those who have it not.

The lesson, rather, is this: our responsibility to the lost does not consist in us getting people saved, but rather in faithfully presenting the gospel to them.  I can’t save anyone.  Neither can you.  Only God does that.  But God does that through the gospel.  We are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20-21).  The ambassador’s responsibility lies in faithfully communicating the message of the one who sent him or her.  In the same way, saving people is not our burden to bear.  Rather, our responsibility lies in giving the gospel to people so that God can use it to bring them to Christ.  Whether or not anyone responds appropriately is not our responsibility.  Bringing the gospel to them is.

It’s like what God told Ezekiel.  The watchman’s job is to warn people.  If he has warned them, he is off the hook, so to speak.  Whether or not the people respond to the watchmen’s warning is on them, not on the watchman.

This ought to also encourage us, because ultimately, saving faith is not the product of clever emotional manipulation on my part.  Nor is it the product of my eloquence.  The power of the gospel does not lie in us, nor is it limited by our limitations.  Thank God!  We can rejoice as we sow the seed, knowing that if God has prepared a heart, it will produce good fruit.  God’s word will not return to him void.  We should speak and live the truth to the lost in the confidence that God will use his truth to bring his elect to faith (cf. Acts 13:48; 18:9-10).

Now another wrong response to this is to argue that since salvation is of the Lord, therefore, the lost have no obligation to repent and believe.  But we know that is not true.  The gospel confronts all men with the imperative to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; 20:21).  Our natural hostility against God that makes God’s work in us necessary does not let us off the hook or diminish our responsibility.  It does, however, make us absolutely dependent upon God.  Again, that does not mean I just wait around and wait to be “changed” or for a certain “feeling.”  Rather, it means that if you are outside of Christ, and you hear the gospel summoning you to repent of your sins and believe on Christ, you do so immediately, but you do so in absolute reliance upon the God who saves you in Jesus Christ.  

Let me come back to the believer before we move to the next point.  Why is it that we are not the witnesses that we are supposed to be?  Speaking from personal experience, unfortunately, I think the following reasons are to blame:

First, could it be because we fear man more than God?  I must confess that I have too often valued the opinion of my fellow man over the blessing of God.  It is shameful.  May God help all of us to be willing to be his faithful messengers, even when it makes us unpopular.  It is better to obey God than to obey men.

I think another reason is that we do not seek first the kingdom of God in our daily lives – it’s not on our mind and in our hearts as it ought to be, and we therefore miss opportunities as a result.  Let’s make God’s kingdom the priority of our lives.  Ultimately, God did not put you on this earth to make money or to be famous or to have fun.  He put you on this earth to glorify him, and one of the ways we do that is by faithfully proclaiming his truth to others.

What this doctrine teaches us respecting our obligation to the church.

Now it might seem strange to think that this doctrine has anything to say about our obligation to the church.  And, strictly speaking, it doesn’t.  But it does say that for us to live the kind of life God is calling us to live, we absolutely need the Spirit of God.  And an implication of this is that even as believers, we are in absolute reliance upon the Spirit’s work.  It’s not like we need the Spirit to come to Christ and then we can take it from there.  As the apostle will go on to show, we need the Spirit in every aspect of our walk (cf. 13-14): “all who are led [being led] by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  

And that means that we need to appropriate the means through which the Spirit works.  One of those means is the Word of God.  Another means is prayer.  But another very important means is the church of Christ.

Isn’t this what 1 Cor. 12 is all about?  It is all about the body of Christ, the church, and how we all need each other’s gifts, and how none of us can exist on our own.  But who is it that gifts the members of the body?  Is it not the Spirit?  “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophesy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:4-11).  Therefore, the implication here is that we need the body of Christ, but that means that we need the Spirit of God who empowers the body of Christ to function as it should.

As believers, we need each other, because it is through other believers that the Spirit works.  The NT does not teach a Lone Ranger Christianity.  Sheep dwell in flocks, they don’t dwell alone; wolves do that.  Let us therefore not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:24-25).

What this doctrine teaches us respecting our obligation to ourselves.

Let me skip ahead just a bit.  In verse 13, Paul tells us how the work of the Spirit should be operative in every believer’s life: “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.”  

If it is by the Spirit of God that fulfill God’s law, then it makes perfect sense that it is by the Spirit that we put to death those things that are contrary to God’s law, which Paul here calls the “deeds of the body.”  Again, we are entirely dependent upon the Spirit’s work every step of the way.  Far from leading to spiritual indolence, however, this ought to enliven us in the battle against sin.

What if a believer wants to give up because they feel that the battle against sin is just too difficult? Well, then, this doctrine reminds us that we are not waging war against sin in the power of our own resources, but in the power of the Spirit.  Are we going to accuse him of insufficiency?  May it never be!  No, my friend, greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.  Keep killing sin, knowing that the grace of God is more than sufficient to overcome any spiritual obstacle or get victory over any powerful lust.

Let this doctrine therefore encourage us in our daily walk, for it reminds us that we are not alone.  Let it spur us to spiritual activity, for we are not doing this in reliance upon our limited resources.  And finally, let it give us a realization of how wonderful the Christian life really is, for it is a life in the Spirit, lived in dependence upon him and through him who is the Spirit of Christ.

[1] Quoted in “10 Things You Should Know About Pelagius and Pelagianism,” by Sam Storms. [accessed 3/21/20]
[2] I am indebted to John Piper’s exposition of these verses for these insights.
[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans [BECNT], (Baker, 1998), p. 411.


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