An Explanation of Paul's Use of Flesh and Spirit in Romans 8

No Condemnation Because of the Work of Christ

In Romans 7, Paul described how the Law brings people to Christ.  He concluded the chapter with a poignant first person illustration of this process.   The result of their having been brought to Christ is that they are no longer condemned for their failure to obey the Law.  In Romans 8, Paul explains why Christians are not condemned for this failure.   He assumes Christ’s work as the sin offering throughout and has explained the sacrifice of atonement that propitiates the wrath of God and expiates our sin in Romans 3:21ff.

Misinterpretations of the Passage

After reading the illustration in chapter 7, readers are tempted to assume that the reason they are no longer condemned is that they are now victorious Christians who are no longer susceptible to the struggle described in the illustration.   People often read through chapter 8 assuming therefore that their sanctification is the basis for the lack of condemnation.  This understanding destroys the meaning of the passage and needs to be corrected. 

Throughout chapter 8 Paul uses language that has been misunderstood  by some.  The misunderstanding revolves around the words “Flesh” and “Spirit.”  A failure to understand these words as Paul intended risks misinterpreting large sections of Scripture in several of Paul’s epistles.  Unfortunately, the NIV, an often excellent translation, adds to the confusion by translating flesh as “the sinful nature.”  Reading “flesh” as “sinful nature” creates a mystical bifurcation between “sinful nature” and “spirit’ that causes readers to often misinterpret our freedom from the law as more a matter of sanctification than justification.

The understanding of the Christian life as war waged between a sinful nature and a new nature is common in Christianity.   According to this paradigm, victory over the flesh or “sinful nature” comes by “walking in the Spirit.”  If “flesh” is seen as the “bad part of us that wants to sin” then the “spirit” becomes a sort of mystical toggle switch that believers use to turn off their sinful tendencies.   Although the language appears biblical (it is taken from both Romans and Galatians), what exactly “walking in the Spirit” means in this paradigm is difficult to determine.   Lacking biblical explanation, many who latch onto this interpretation spend much misdirected time attempting to work it out by experience.  They search, as it were, for a Spirit activator “button”—some magical button of the Christian life that, when pressed, infuses the Christian with a power that enables him to overcome his sin.  My challenge to those who embrace this paradigm is to objectively describe that button from Scripture.  The Scriptures do not give us much to go on, so the button presser is left to work out its meaning and application apart from Scripture.   Most common efforts involve spending long hours in devotions, confessing sin and worrying about unconfessed sin, praying, engaging in deep, prolonged meditations about spiritual things, and mystically tuning one’s heart to the heart of God. After all, God speaks in a still, small voice--one must be properly attuned to that voice in order to “walk in the Spirit.”  Unfortunately, the Scriptures connect none of these things with “walking in the Spirit.”  Effectively, Christians have made them up because they have little else to go on.  Unfortunately, honest Christians would need to admit to a less than satisfactory experience overcoming sin using these methods. In fact, this interpretation leads men and women to work towards sanctification in a way that is exactly opposite Paul’s intended meaning in these passages and will often result in greater dissatisfaction.

Paul’s Use of “Flesh” and “Spirit”

So I would argue that the word in the text should simply be translated “flesh,” because it maintains an antithetical relationship between “flesh” and “Spirit” that mirrors “law” and “grace.” According to this paradigm, “flesh” represents life under the Law.  Flesh is metonymical and should not be read as a gnostic comment on material existence. “Fleshly” is simply the state of man from Christ. It manifested in any religious attempt to gain righteousness by means of Law.    Spirit, on the other hand, represents a new life in Christ, a renewal of the mind to a new way of living through justification by faith in the Gospel.  It is a declaration of righteousness by means of faith in Christ, apart from the Law.  The word “Spirit” represents this new way of life because the Spirit is the one who enables such a life to begin and empowers it to continue (Gal. 5). He is the Regenerator of the depraved soul that once was faithless and now believes. Thus “Spirit” in this passage represents something very different from a mere mystical empowerment toward successful lawful living.   So when reading “flesh” in this passage, understand “efforts at righteousness by means of Law.”  And when reading “Spirit,” understand “righteousness through faith in Christ apart from Law.”

So then how are we to understand statements such as “live according to the Spirit (v. 4),” “be controlled by the Spirit( v.9),” “put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit (v. 13),” and “be led by the Spirit of God (v. 14)?  Each of these phrases appears to say that if we are somehow led by the Spirit we will experience victory in the Christian life.  Those who have misinterpreted 7:14ff eagerly long for this “Spirit-victory” that will allow them to no longer “do what they do not want to do.” They read that we will meet the righteous requirements of the Law if we by live by the Spirit (8:4).    The apparent promise of victory is a tempting misinterpretation.  However, such an interpretation jumps the gun, and misses some very valuable points that must be in place before one can expect this Spirit-led victory.

Now for those who at this point would claim that I am denying the need or fact of sanctification (progressive growth in righteousness) in our lives, please hear me out.  The Bible clearly teaches the need and fact of sanctification, but we should not see sanctification when in fact the Bible is discussing justification.   The confusion of the two is a very Romanist mistake.  When we read only Spirit-enabled sanctification into this passage, we miss a very blessed and meaningful discussion of the role that justification plays in our attitude toward and growth in sanctification. 

The book of Romans has taught us that the law was powerless to make us righteous, so God justified us (declared us righteous) through the work of Christ (vv. 1-3).  This justification freed us from the Law because the Law was now fulfilled in us through Christ.  This was done “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us (v. 4).”   Rather than implying a working out of righteousness in our lives, this paragraph simply states that our justification (our fully meeting righteous law-requirements through Christ) is that which frees us from our life under law.  This is done if we do not live in the “flesh” (i.e. under the Law)  but rather “in the Spirit” (i.e. under grace through faith in Christ.)

Here is the significance of the flesh/Spirit distinction above:  Success in Christian living does not come by means of Law.   Simply put, you cannot make yourself righteous through your own effort.  Those who attempt to will be doomed to repeat the frustration and failure described in Romans 7.    Chapter 8 verse 5ff also describes this failure:  “Those who live according to the flesh (read “who attempt righteousness by means of Law”) have their minds set on what the flesh desires.”   “The mind of sinful man is death,” and “the sinful mind is hostile toward God.  It does not submit to God’s Law nor can it do so.  Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God.” 

Failure and Frustration by the Flesh

Why is man incapable of achieving righteousness through the Law?  Why is man doomed to frustration and failure if he relies on his own effort?  Paul told us in chapter 7 that we are “sold as slaves to sin.”  In chapter 5 Paul explained that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, so that death came upon all men, for all have sinned.”  Paul explains in chapter 7:5-11 the effect that this sinfulness has when combined with God’s Law:  “When we were controlled by the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the Law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. . . . Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. . . . when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me and through the commandment put me to death.”   It seems apparent that when man lives life by the Law, he is doomed to frustration, failure and death.

All of us would quickly acknowledge with Paul that, of course, no man can earn salvation by his own works.  But much of Romans and the book of Galatians would not need to have been written if this problem of “living life under law” plagued only unbelievers.  The powerful irony of this message is that these books are addressed to believers, who have placed themselves under the Law and in effect removed themselves from grace.  It would be my contention that the degree of frustration and failure that we as Christians feel and experience in our lives is the measure of how much we live life under Law and how little we rely upon Christ. 

The degree of frustration and failure in our lives is also the measure of how much we need to rightly understand the concept of “being led by the Spirit,” for apparently, it is the key to life and peace.  And after all this talk of frustration, failure and death, the words “life” and “peace” should appear to us as precious commodities.  How do we get them?

Life and Peace by the Spirit

The opposite of frustration and failure in the passage is indeed life and peace.  It is everything that the Law could not provide.  We read that “if  we live by the Spirit, the righteous requirements of the Law will be met in us (8:4),”  “If we live by the Spirit we will have our minds set on what the Spirit desires (8:5),” “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace (8:6)”  “We will live if we put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (8:13, 14).”

No Sanctification Apart from a Proper Understanding of Justification by Christ  and the Operation of the Spirit

Throughout Romans, efforts to gain righteousness through Law have been contrasted again and again with justification by faith.  In this chapter, Paul, through the useful shorthand of “flesh” and “Spirit,” continues to make the contrast.  Confusion results when we read too much of sanctification into these terms at the expense of their intended reference to justification.  This does not mean that the word “Spirit” has no application to sanctification.  To the contrary, Paul has hinted several times before that justification has a supremely important role in our sanctification; on the other hand, he has declared unequivocally that the Law does not. It is necessary to labor over these minute distinctions because when considering sanctification it is very easy for the believer to fall back into a life of lawfulness.  We must understand that our comprehension of justification cannot be left out of any formula for sanctification.

In Romans, Paul argues that the doctrine of justification has a profound impact on our sanctification.  In fact, sanctification is not possible without a proper understanding of justification. He addresses sanctification specifically for the first time in chapter 6:1ff, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may increase?  Of course not!  We died to sin.  How can we live in it any longer?”  The obvious implication is that believers in Christ should stop sinning.  The rest of the chapter is quite explicit about sanctification.  It is expected of those who have been justified.  It is appropriate to call us back to chapter 6 at this point, because there is a significant parallel there with chapter 8: both chapters speak of death to sin and resurrection to a new way of living.  Chapter 6 specifically relates this death to our need to stop sinning.  But chapter 6 gives the enabling reason for this sanctification:  our union with Christ.  By our union with Christ, we died to sin and have been raised to a new life.  Death to sin means that we no longer have to sin because we are no longer under the letter of the Law. According to Paul, to be under law is to be doomed to sin and to be freed from law is to be freed from sin. Thus the sentence, “Sin will not be your master, for we are not under law but under grace.” Again, in chapter 7:4, on the heels of reading that we died to sin, we read that we died to the Law. The exacerbating effect of the Law upon our depravity described in Romans 7:5-11 explains the inseparable relationship between being under law and being under sin. 

As the ground for his admonitions against sin, Paul calls upon believers to “know” that they have been united with Christ (6:3), to “know” that our old way of life under law was crucified (6:6), to “believe” that we live with Christ (6:8), to “consider” ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (6:11).  All of these activities are but another way to describe faith in the work of the crucified and risen Savior.  They each describe His work on the cross for each believer.  In short, sanctification is accomplished by means of an informed faith in the Gospel.  On the basis of this faith in the work of Christ, Paul can tell believers that they should offer their bodies as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness (6:19).

So life in the Spirit, i.e. a life of faith in Christ, has everything to do with sanctification because it has everything to do with justification.  Sanctification cannot be accomplished when we wrestle the law with the strength of our depraved wills.  Sanctification can only be accomplished when we fully embrace the grace of God in Christ that grants forgiveness for our failures.  Life in the Spirit is a new way of life that no longer depends upon the letter of the Law. Later in the book, beginning in chapter 12, Paul gives examples of what this new way of life looks like in practical terms.

“The Spirit led me to make that decision.”

One final tangent concerning the popular clause in verse 14: “because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  This verse is often used to support theories concerning how Christians can find the “will of God.”   Christians who proof-text a theory of God’s will by this phraseology will find themselves attempting to tune themselves in some mystical way to the voice of God in order to hear his leading.  They may for instance believe that God is leading them to give money to a local religious TV station.  They may convince themselves that God is telling them to witness to such and such a person, or take such and such a job, date or marry such and such a person, etc.  When asked for biblical proof for such immediate communication from God, this verse can quickly come to mind.  It is not my purpose here to argue that Divine immediate communication is or is not biblical.  However, this particular verse or any similar verses in Galatians 5 are not intended by Paul for this purpose. 

Instead, Paul’s notion of being “led by the Spirit” is fully consistent with the Law/grace antithesis presented throughout all of Paul’s writings.  One who is “led by the Spirit” does not wrestle with the letter of the Law.  Instead he embraces a new life of faith in Christ.  On that ground Paul can say that he is a son of God who puts to death the old way of life that is in bondage to sin and the Law. 




 This paper was heavily influenced by Douglas Moo's commentary on Romans and an article in Christian Perspectives on Being Human edited by J.P Moreland.  (This information will be updated in proper bibliographical form shortly.