led by Robert Brow
I will use the following definition of the word sarx (flesh), which you may want to amend as we go along:
"Flesh refers to the natural instincts received through the genes of our parents, as they were influenced or twisted by our early childhood experiences"
You can see that in a fierce cross dog who was tied up outside in the dog house, as opposed to a puppy from the same litter who was taken as a pet for the children to play with in the house. You can also see the difference in a child who was loved and influenced in good directions as opposed to one who was unloved and abused. Our flesh is therefore a product of both nature and nurture.
This means that our flesh is given to us, so it is not sinful in itself. Which is why the New Testament can say of Jesus' incarnation (becoming flesh) "The Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). "He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect . . . Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (Hebrews 2:17-18). And "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15, see Philippians 2:7). If Jesus had been born with a different kind of human nature he would not have been "tempted in all points as we are."
So knowing that Jesus took flesh, and with our definition in mind, we look carefully at Paul's use of the word in our section of Romans. And in each I will add a comment.
7:14 "I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin." If flesh is God-given, and not by nature sinful, when and how does it get enslaved to sin? One answer is that our flesh is only freed to perform its proper function by the power of the Spirit. In Paul's mind sin is not particular sinful acts, but refusing to let the Holy Spirit control and influence our instincts for their proper function. We might compare a horse that has thrown off its rider, and is wandering around aimlessly in the forest.
7:18 "I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh, I can will what is right but I cannot do it" (here "what is right" refers to "the good I want," 7:19). After we come to faith by the Spirit we begin to realize that however hard we try we are unable to love the way Jesus taught us and himself lived out perfectly.
7:25 "With my mind I am a slave to (subject to) the law of God, but with my flesh (in my flesh) I am a slave to (subject to) the law of (principle of) sin." In our heads we long for spiritual change, but our flesh (like an unbroken horse) is still refusing the control of the Spirit. No amount of self- discipline can help us.
8:3 "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do". As argued earlier in the Epistle, the law and legalism can never produce "the Spirit of life" (7:4-6, 18-19, 8:2, see Galatians 3:3). Which is why Paul is so totally opposed to legalism (as among the Pharisees) as a way of life.
8:5 "Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit." Which means there are two ways of living one's life, either by focusing our attention on our flesh and its problems or by focusing on the Spirit to change us.
8:6-7 "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." This is not physical death, but a spiritual death of alienation from God (as in Genesis 2:17, 3:4, Ephesians 2:1, 4). And Paul explains that "for this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God." Which may explain why people who reject the work of the Spirit are so often prejudiced against Christian faith. This was a fact in Jesus' day, and it still surfaces in our world.
8:8-9 "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you." Our natural instincts have no interest in us being perfected in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). But once we allow the Spirit to dwell in us, our natural instincts can begin to be controlled.
We know that a sheep dog can have its instincts trained to be a well-behaved, caring, highly skilled minder of sheep. And there is no doubt that humans, without the help of the Holy Spirit, can tame and redirect their natural instincts to be well-mannered, upright, gentle, very caring citizens in all sorts of areas.
But as we go on in chapter 8:9-30 we find Paul giving us a string of activities that no amount of natural human effort can produce. They can only be created in us by the Holy Spirit's power and inspiration. The Spirit uses and works on our natural instincts. But none of the following gifts and fruits of the Spirit can ever be produced by the flesh alone:
8:9 "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." In the Gospels we find the apostles being enrolled by baptism to learn about Jesus as Messiah in his kingdom. But Peter did not begin to understand till he had been at least two years with Jesus. It was only then that he said "you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16). And it was at the meal on the first Easter evening that Jesus said "As the Father has sent me, so send I you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:21-22). That was when the disciples received the Holy Spirit that would enable them to fly on their own.
Evidently one can know Jesus after the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:16), and be one of his disciples by baptism without receiving the Spirit that will effect the image of God changes that are required. Paul wrote to Titus that we are saved "through the water of rebirth (baptism) and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). The Samaritans were baptized by Philip to begin learning, but they still needed the apostles to come and pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12, 14-16, see 19:2-6).
There are innumerable people who love the stories of Jesus and claim to be born again, but they have no experience of the power of the Holy Spirit in their life. The twentieth century has been called the century of the Holy Spirit (partly through the charismatic movement) as millions of people have experienced the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-31) in congregations made alive by the Spirit.
8:10 "If Christ is in you, though the body (flesh) is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life through the righteousness which he produces in us" (literal translation). The Messiah's life comes in to us by the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is ask. "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (Luke 11:13). Evidently the three Persons of the Trinity work together in our perfecting, but that is another huge topic, which we cannot study this evening.
8:11 "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you." Jesus was given a human body by the Spirit (Luke 1:35). And when Jesus died there was no way his natural instincts could give him a resurrection body. We too are guaranteed our resurrection body by the same Spirit.
8:12-13 "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." Our natural instincts have no interest in going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). It is only by the Spirit that the disinclination of the flesh can be overcome and motivated to love. Paul is not speaking of beating down the flesh by asceticism, but by being inspired and motivated by the Spirit. Our natural body with its instincts will inevitably die, but what the Spirit does in us is of eternal value and gives us eternal life (see 8:11).
8:14 "All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God." In making difficult decisions we can try to balance the various instincts of our flesh (food, self-protection, comfort, sex, mothering, territory, pecking order) as any animal does. Or by the Spirit we can receive wisdom to see what is appropriate as children of God.
8:15-16 "You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God." Animals and humans have a natural instinctive relationship with parents and siblings, at least for a time until they branch out on their own. But by the Spirit we know that we are adopted as children of God and have become part of an eternal family (as in John 1:12, 1 John 3:1). It is one thing to believe this in theory, it is a quite different when we experience our adoption by the Spirit.
8:17 "And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with the Messiah." Our normal instincts may assure us that we are the heirs of our parents' home and property. But by the Spirit we know we have all the riches of the very family of God.
8:18-25 The Spirit also enables us to come to terms with human suffering. In the flesh there is no hope of a happy creative outcome. We may not understand how but by the Spirit we view the present as the pains of childbirth (8:22) which will have a glorious outcome in "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (8:21). We can face human suffering, and keep loving, as the Spirit assures us our life and our world it will not prove to be meaningless.
8:26 Many pray out of habit or duty. They may even make a list of things that need prayer. And they cry out like a wounded animal when they are wounded or their family is in danger. By the Spirit we find prayers coming from the depths of our heart "with sighs too deep for words", and sense that these are "according to the will of God."
8:28 Without the Spirit there is no meaning to our world. It moves along erratically, dangerously, incomprehensibly towards inevitable destruction. By the Spirit we discover that from the beginning (Genesis 1:26) God has planned for us to be perfected "in the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family."
8:29 And this outcome is assured for any who welcome it. There is a possibility that "some people loved the darkness" (John 3:19) rather than the light and love of God, and for them there is the awesome option of choosing the darkness of eternal death."
8:30 For those who "come to the light" (John 3:21). which includes millions more than ever attend our churches, there is a sense of being called (invited) into that light. But it is by the Spirit that they are made right (the Greek verb is dikaioo which has no sense of a law court transaction as explained in Romans Commentary Introduction). Many have a vague hope in a life after death, and it is only by the Spirit that they have the vision and assurance of being glorified as they pass through the gates of death.
Let me conclude with the doxology (15:13) that ends the main part of Paul's Epistle to the Romans (it is followed by two appendices addressed to other churches):
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit
As we begin to experience the Holy Spirit intervening in our life, we
have hope that he will continue his gracious work whatever we face in the
future. And it is those who have had many experiences of the Holy Spirit
in their life who have great hope and assurance as they face their death