Why and How We Walk According to the Spirit
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
We must be very clear about something as we begin this morning. Christian living is essentially supernatural living. By supernatural I mean that powers are at work in Christian living that are above the natural. I don't have in mind vague forces like ESP or channeling or crystals or various forms of sorcery or witchcraft or out-of-body experiences or reincarnation – all of which are an abomination to God (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9-10; Isaiah 8:19) because they belittle the all-sufficiency of God and his Son Jesus Christ as God's way of communication and transformation. Instead, what I have in mind is very specifically the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives by faith on the basis of Christ's historical death and resurrection. This work is not vague and general. It is clear and specific and rooted in the concrete historical life and death of Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead and who gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in him.
But make no mistake, living the Christian life is not a Dale-Carnegie-type program for how to win friends and influence people. It is not a kind of Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement. One offshoot of that movement from the 1920's says today:
MRA is not a sect. It is a movement where each one of us is rooted in our own religious tradition. . . . These ideas enable those of different faiths to work together without any of us compromising our beliefs. For the concepts of divine guidance and moral standards - expressed in varying terms - are common to all the world's major religions.(12-1-01; 7-11-03, uk.initiativesofchange.org/)
I quote this to throw into stark relief that living the Christian life is not that sort of thing. The "concepts of divine guidance" are not common to any other religion. We must get an entirely different mindset. And mindset is an utterly crucial word in this text. We must get the mindset of the Spirit of God. That is what defines us as Christians.
Let's start right there with what a Christian is and then get an overview of the argument of this text and then look more closely at what it means to fulfill the law of God.
What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?
Start with me at verse 9: "However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." There is one of the clearest statements in the New Testament of what a Christian is: "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." We do not belong to Christ if we do not have the Spirit of Christ. We are not Christians if we do not have the Spirit of Christ. And in the sentence just before this one the Spirit of Christ is called the Spirit of God. "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you." So the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ are one Spirit, and if you "have" this Spirit, or if he "dwells" in you, then you belong to Christ and you are in the realm or the sway or the ruling sphere of God's Spirit. You are not governed by the flesh – that is, the merely human sphere or merely natural sphere. This is what I mean by saying that being a Christian and living the Christian life are supernatural. God's Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, lives in us and brings about changes that could never and would never be made without him so that Jesus Christ is glorified in what we do.
An Overview of Paul's Argument
Now let's get an overview of the argument – the train of thought – in verses 4-8. I see five steps in the argument. Let's read it forward first, the way Paul wrote it. Then let's read it backward to make sure we got it.
First, in verse 4 Paul's aim is "that the requirement of the law be fulfilled in us." We will see in Romans 13:8 that love fulfills the law.
Second, at the end of verse 4 he says that the way this law is fulfilled in us is that we walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. "So that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
Third, in verse 5 he explains that this walking accords with the Spirit because of a certain spiritual mindset behind it. The mindset behind walking according to the Spirit is a mindset toward the truth and value of the things of the Spirit: "For those who are [and walk] according to the flesh set their minds on [have the mindset to love] the things of the flesh, but those who are [and walk] according to the Spirit, [set their minds on = have the mindset to cherish] the things of the Spirit." So our walk (v. 4) is owing to the set or the disposition of our minds (v. 5) toward the things of the Spirit.
Fourth, the reason that the mindset of the Spirit produces a walk that fulfills the law and the reason that the mindset of the flesh doesn't is that the mindset of the flesh is death and the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace. Verse 6: "For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace." Remember from verse 2: It is "the law of the Spirit of life [that] has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." The Spirit is effective in shaping our mind and shaping our walk because he is alive. He imparts spiritual life. He does not just speak laws or rules and tell us to do them. He brings the law and writes it on our hearts and creates the life that loves the law and delights in God and treasures Jesus. So I would paraphrase the argument so far: the mindset of the Spirit produces a spiritual walk that fulfills the law because that spiritual disposition of mind is the fruit and form of the life of God's Spirit within us.
Finally, step five in the argument, verses 7 and 8, shows why we so desperately need the mindset of the Spirit and the life of the Spirit. And why there is death without it. Without the Spirit and the life of the Spirit and the mindset of the Spirit we are dead because we are hostile to God and cannot submit to his law. Verse 7: ". . . Because the mind set on [=the mindset of] the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, (8) and those who are in the flesh cannot please God." In other words, the root of death is sin – rebellion against God. The root is an independent spirit that cares little for God and prefers other things to God. It has a suicidal love affair with independence and self-determination.
That's what has to be overcome if we are going to fulfill the requirement of the law. Do you see how the text ends with our bondage to hostility and insubordination: We cannot submit to the law. But everything in the argument moves to the victory over that condition to the point in verse 4: "that we may fulfill the requirement of the law." That's what this text is about: moving from slavery to insubordination and hostility to the freedom of life and obedience.
Now to make sure we grasp this argument, let's move through it in reverse.
5) Step Five (Verses 7-8): Hostility to God
The mindset of the flesh – the way we are by nature, as mere humans, apart from any supernatural help from the Spirit of God – is hostile to God. It does not and cannot submit to God or please God.
4) Step Four (Verse 6): Life of the Spirit
Therefore the mind of the flesh brings death. Hostility to God is suicide of the worst kind. Only the Spirit gives life (verse 2). And the mindset of the Spirit is the fruit and the form of that life. The life of the Spirit creates the mindset of the Spirit and shapes the mindset of the Spirit. We must have the Spirit to conquer our suicidal bondage to rebellion against God.
3) Step Three (Verse 5): Spiritual Mindset
Therefore, since the mindset of the Spirit is the fruit and shape of the Spirit's life, the way God designed for us to walk and live is to have a spiritual mindset, not a fleshly one. From hostility to life to a spiritual mindset. . .
2) Step Two (Verse 4b): New Walk according to the Spirit
Therefore, because we have this spiritual mindset, we walk that way – we live that way. We "do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." Our spiritual mindset determines our walk. The power of the Holy Spirit to impart life and to change what we value and treasure and desire changes the way we live or walk. From hostility to life to a spiritual mindset to a new walk according to the Spirit.
1) Step One (Verse 4a): Fulfillment of the Law
Therefore, by this walk we fulfill the requirement of the law. We walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. From hostility tolife to a spiritual mindset to a new walk according to the Spirit to fulfillment of the law. Oh, how crucial is the supernatural life and work of the Spirit of Christ to get us from inability to submit to God's law, to the very fulfillment of God's law! Cherish this Spirit! Seek the fullness of this Spirit!
Next Week's Question
Next week we will take up the question: How can our imperfect obedience and our imperfect love be called a fulfillment of the requirement of the law? I do believe that Romans 8 teaches that the law is fulfilled in us and not just for us. How can that be? Since when does the law say, "Pretty good will do?" Never. That's next week.
Let me close like this. I hope that one thing rings: To get from your bondage to self to the loving fulfillment of the law takes a mighty supernatural work of God by the Spirit. We need a mindset to love Christ and the things of the Spirit. We need to be put out of taste with the dainties of the world. Where does that come from? It comes from the Spirit. And this wonderful dependence on Spirit may be had by faith alone apart from works of the law.