To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. —Romans 8:6
My purpose today is to open a door for every one of you to living in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the second Person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit brings down into our experience the felt presence of God. The Holy Spirit gives us new hearts alive to God. The Holy Spirits empowers us to live boldly for God. The Spirit is the gift of God’s grace. He has nothing greater to give. The Holy Spirit is God’s deepest Self loving your deepest self. My job is to position you with a new understanding, where you can welcome the Holy Spirit in a new way today.
Romans 8 is for defeated, weak people. God sends the Spirit to replace our defeat with his power. But God sends the Holy Spirit also to successful people, to save them from their success. The Holy Spirit replaces the best that we can do with the best that he can do. There are two kinds of people who need the miracle of the Holy Spirit – defeated rebels and successful rebels. They are both rebels, with minds set on the flesh. The Bible says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” It is death to lie in the vomit of my own stupidity and shame. It is death to stand as King-of-the-hill and smirk at everyone else. But to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. It’s green pastures and still waters. God wants to give every one of us defeated and successful sinners that life and peace through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Will you receive that this morning? Let’s go there together right now, taking it verse by verse.
For 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. —Romans 8:5
The key terms are “flesh” and “Spirit.” These two words are windows into the beneath-the-surface dynamics in our minds that control us. One way to live is what the Bible calls “the flesh.” The other way to live is what the Bible calls “the Spirit.” We need these simple, either/or categories, because we think in many complex categories like liberal and conservative and libertarian, rich and poor and middle class and upper middle class, cool and uncool, and so forth. And we think we access life and peace by locating ourselves in the human category we admire and envy and we hope others will admire and envy. That’s our natural mindset – the mind set on the flesh, on all things earthly and egocentric. And it’s superficial, though it does cause a lot of conflict as we fight to position ourselves in a more enviable place. We need the gospel, so that we can see God and ourselves with new categories. What really defines us and positions us for either death or life is deeper than we think. It’s the flesh versus the Spirit. What does Paul mean?
He’s telling us that what really directs us either deeper into death or into newness of life is not intelligence, not social advantage, not even will-power. What makes the difference is miracle. What makes the difference is something only God can do. The Spirit changes the way we think, what we set our minds on. The mind set on the Spirit is just that – a mindset. It’s the tilt of our hearts. It’s a new desire for the Spirit and all the Spirit can do, as opposed to the flesh and all the flesh can do.
Here is what you must understand. The mind set on the flesh can be either Kid Rock or Mr. Goodguy who pays his bills on time, volunteers for good causes and drives a hybrid. What Kid Rock and Mr. Goodguy have in common is the mentality of the flesh. One may be outlandish, and the other may be virtuous. Their ethics may be different from each other. They may fight each other in the culture wars. They may be on opposing teams, so to speak. But they’re playing the same game – self-exaltation, self-focus, self-assurance, self-justification, self-importance. Selfish pride is the idol standing supreme in the temple of the natural human heart. Without the miracle of the Holy Spirit, we will live that way. We just will. In the gospels there are many stories of Jesus healing cripples and blind people and epileptics and even raising the dead. Why? Because that’s what we are. We even feel normal that way. But Self is a hard idol to serve. That idol demands everything of us and forgives nothing in us. We all know that.
But let’s press in still deeper, because the Bible is opening up a crucial insight here. It’s obvious that a Playboy lifestyle is of the flesh. What isn’t obvious is that a moral and civic-minded and religious lifestyle is also of the flesh. Any lifestyle that isn’t miracle, that doesn’t come down to us from beyond us, can’t be of the Holy Spirit and must be of the flesh. The Goodguy mentality is not Christianity. It’s a temptation, just as much as a Playboy lifestyle is a temptation. It’s a temptation for Christians. The Bible says, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). In others words, how did you become a Christian? You didn’t do it. God did it. He sent the Holy Spirit into your heart through the gospel, and you came alive to Jesus. It was all miracle. And if that’s how you began, it’s also how you grow. Everyone in Christ is an ongoing miracle. You began back then and you grow now by hearing the gospel, God sending the Spirit, and your heart lighting up. We don’t grow by the love we generate; we grow by the love we trust. We grow by continuous miracle through the ministry of the gospel empowered by the Holy Spirit.
But the flesh can feel more promising and more helpful than the Spirit: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Paul had to ask Christians to think about that. There’s still something even in Christian hearts that loves the law: “Mr. Law. I want to be a better Christian. So I’m going to find a church that will regiment me and create new rules for me. Then I’ll get serious. Then I’ll get my act together.” There’s still something in our hearts that deeply loves that whole approach, because the flesh can succeed at obedience – at a technical level, anyway. Take the Pharisees. They loved community service projects, because it made them look good (Matthew 6:1-4). That’s the obedience of the flesh. The Pharisees loved to go to prayer meetings and fast, for the same reason. It was all self-display. They weren’t obeying God out of full hearts. They were filling their emptiness with the admiration of others. That’s why they were doing all those good things. And they were good at it. Paul himself had excelled in the obedience of the flesh: “I have reason for confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4). Paul didn’t become a Christian because he had failed. He became a Christian when he threw away his hard-won success. Why did he do that? Because his obedience wasn’t of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing divine about it. It was not about Christ. So Paul came to realize there are two kinds of obedience – the obedience of the flesh and the obedience of the Spirit. And that adds up to three ways to live. There’s disobedience, there’s fleshly obedience, and there’s spiritual obedience. There’s moral failure, there’s moral success, and there’s Christ. There’s defiant rebellion, compliant rebellion, and God’s grace winning our hearts down deep and changing us. Only Christ can free us from both forms of the flesh by giving us new life in the Spirit. This is what I mean: (see attached photo, “Three Ways to Live”)￼
Where are you in this picture? Here’s why it all matters. Bible Belt religion is lifestyle #2. Bible Belt religion thinks that the great dividing line is between lifestyle #1, which is evil, and lifestyles #2 and #3, which are good. Bible Belt religion thinks the only difference between lifestyles #2 and #3 is a little less of Jesus versus a little more of Jesus, an okay Christian versus a super-Christian. But because Bible Belt religion accepts lifestyle #2 as Christian – there’s no miracle in it, there’s no grace in it, it isn’t from heaven, it’s just a cultural tradition with a lot of Jesus-talk – because lifestyle #2 is accepted as Christian, church people can behave in fleshly ways and see no problem with it. What’s worse, people living lifestyle #1 think that the gospel will impose on them lifestyle #2, and what younger brother wants to become an older brother? When the defiant younger brothers of Nashville hear the gospel, they think it’s a recruitment program for joining a club of self-righteous nags. The key to evangelizing Nashville is the churches, starting with us, repenting of lifestyle #2, because it is not of God any more than lifestyle #1. Here’s what all of us need to do in Nashville today. We need to repent of our sin, and we need to repent of our morality, and we need to receive with the empty hands of faith the finished work of Christ on the cross for our forgiveness and the free power of the Holy Spirit for our aliveness. Here’s why we can do that. The line dividing lifestyles #1 and #2 from lifestyle #3 is red. That’s the blood of Christ, the dying love of Christ for sinners of all kinds. The Anglican church has a tradition. They paint the front doors of their churches red, because we all come into church through the blood of Christ.
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
Here’s the question. It’s practical. Is your life working for you? Is your heart at rest? Do you feel like a sinner surprisingly loved by God? Do you feel that your sins have been wonderfully taken away to the cross of Christ? Is that the mental environment you live in? Or are you living somewhere else? What’s happening in your heart? Is the Holy Spirit leading you out of death into life and peace in Christ?
If you’re stuck on Self, you will die. You will die the death of self-love and arrogance, or you will die the death of self-hatred and anxiety and the accusing voice within, or probably a mixture of both – both angry self-justification and blaming, with loneliness and shame. Our natural mindset, the flesh, lives in a simple mental world of crime and punishment. That world is cruelly moral. Everything that happens to us in that environment is explainable in terms of either the good we deserve or the bad we fear. That whole way of thinking is the death of our hearts. It’s when we swing back and forth between self-pity and self-loathing. That’s a death God doesn’t want you to die. But if you stay there, it’s a death that will never end, because you won’t be able to stop.
If you’re living lifestyle #1 and still enjoying it, that will change. The bitter aftertaste will set in. But the Father in heaven is waiting for you to come home in repentance. He’s waiting to give you life and peace in a new heart. If you’ll come, he won’t embarrass you: “Look at you, filthy like that.” He will gently cover you with the righteousness of Christ. If you’re living lifestyle #2 and still feeling superior, that too will change. You will inevitably fail so blatantly, even you will see it. But the Father in heaven is waiting for you too. If you’ll come, he will not say to you, “It’s about time.” He will rejoice over you and give you life and peace in a new heart. But you will never be happy the way you are. It cannot work for you. Here’s why:
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. —Romans 8:7-8
The crisis in your life today is not the stock market or the President’s health plan or your job search. The question in your life today is hostility toward God versus submission toward God. And apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit, your heart is and will remain angry and hostile and rebellious and touchy and tense and defensive toward the Father in heaven. Apart from God’s own merciful intervention in your mind, God getting involved in your subjectivity, you will always shrink from God and resent God the way a slave avoids a master who makes him work against his will. That whole tedious mentality is both dishonoring to God and injurious to you. It is self-abuse. That’s why you’re unhappy. Your whole mindset keeps you from the love of God. You need God to save your angry heart by loving your angry heart to the point of melting and repenting and submitting.
Do not tell yourself you’re in control of this. You are not. When Paul says here that the mentality of the flesh cannot submit to God and cannot please God, he’s talking about original sin. He’s talking about our unfree wills. He’s talking about the weakness and defeatedness and rage that naturally pervade everything we are, including our virtues – everything we admire about ourselves, everything we think we have coming to us, the good we hope is true about us, our feelings of entitlement. That ugliness within – we cannot not be like that. Being insolent toward God is as natural to us as breathing. It is the air we breathe. Our exaggerated sense of control cannot please God, because it keeps us from God. Our moral fervor cannot please God, because it keeps us from God. Our woundedness cannot please God. Our demands cannot please God. We can’t even trust in our ability to repent well enough. The old Puritan William Beveridge told us about ourselves when he told us about himself:
I cannot pray, but I sin. I cannot hear or preach a sermon but I sin. I cannot give an alms or receive the sacrament, but I sin. Nay, I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears need washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.
That is repentance. And it’s a miracle the Spirit gives. Yes, it is a kind of woundedness. But it’s a happy woundedness, because it brings us to Christ. He alone is our life and peace. We must stop feeling so adequate and worthy and able. We must feel the out-there-ness of our holy hope. He gives himself, his very Spirit, to sinners. If you desire this priceless gift, here’s all it will cost you.
One summer day in 1964, I was down at the beach in San Clemente. I was out body surfing with some friends. We were way out there, the surf was good, and we were having a great time. All of a sudden we saw two lifeguards swimming out toward us. We said to them, “Who are you going to rescue?” They said, “You.” And one of them grabbed me and swam like a seal all the way back and dragged me up on the beach. I was humiliated. I was a cool surfer dude. Friends there on the beach were watching. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t think I needed to be saved. I didn’t want to be saved. We were having fun. But the lifeguards could see what we couldn’t see. They could see the currents and the riptides. They knew we were in trouble. And they did something about it. What if they hadn’t? What if they hadn’t wounded my pride? Jesus didn’t wait until we started screaming. He moved toward us first out of infinite love. He went to the cross. He went to the tomb. He went to the skies. Now he’s sending the Spirit. Those of us here living lifestyle #1 may or may not feel in trouble. Those of us living lifestyle #2 may or may not feel in trouble. But here’s the question for every one of us. Can you endure the humiliation of being saved? Can you endure being dragged across that red line into a life and peace you could never experience on your own? Do you mind being given the greatest gift in the universe? Is that so horrible a humiliation? Or will you swallow your pride and say to him, “Yes. Thank you for who you are. I receive all you will give”?
The only price we pay for life and peace is our pride. Is that okay with you?