THE FLESH-SPIRIT CONTRAST

A significant aspect of Paul’s teaching about salvation is the contrast between relating to God on the basis of our own perceived righteousness and relating to God on the basis of his gift of the righteousness of Christ.

In Romans 8:1 – 11 he explains this contrast by the terms ‘according to flesh’ and ‘according to Spirit’. The Greek terms are kata sarka and kata pneuma. Every person who is a Christian is related to God on the basis of the Spirit not the flesh.

Here Paul takes up the two ways of looking at a person, which he introduced us to in his description of Jesus Christ in 1:3-4. If you look at Jesus according to flesh he was simply a descendant of David. But there is a deeper truth revealed by the Spirit: Jesus Christ, kata pneuma, is declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. In 2Corinthians 5:16, Paul says that he used to regard Christ kata sarka, according to flesh. On that basis he saw Jesus as a gross blasphemer, and persecuted all who exalted Jesus’ name. But his Damascus road experience convinced him that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. And because of that, he, similarly, also no longer regards Christians as they are in themselves (according to flesh), but only as they are in Christ (according to Spirit.)

When Paul talks about this according to flesh/according to Spirit distinction in Romans 8, and elsewhere, he is not talking about the difference between two levels of Christians, one worldly and one spiritual, but about the distinction between unbelievers and believers:

Between those, on the one hand, who have not been regenerated by the Spirit, who have not been united to Christ by the Spirit, who have not embraced Jesus Christ and his salvation, and therefore have to stand in the presence of God on their own two feet, with only their own ‘righteousness’ or lack of it, in their hands.

And those, on the other hand, who have been born again by the Spirit, who have been united to Christ by the Spirit, who have embraced Jesus Christ and his salvation, and who therefore live in the presence of God trusting only and always in Jesus Christ and his perfect righteousness for their acceptance with God.

Paul lists the significant contrasts between the two:

8.4 – we live in the presence of God, not on the basis of what we ourselves are and do, but on the basis of what the Spirit has done in bringing unto faith in Christ.

8.5 – the religious person who does not believe in Christ is constantly thinking about what they themselves have to do or to be to merit God’s acceptance; but those who believe in Christ are constantly aware of the salvation they have in Christ – the things the Spirit has revealed and guaranteed.

8.6 – the mindset of the flesh is thus death, for we will never be good enough in and of ourselves, but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace.

8.7, 8 – the mindset of the flesh, because it is always focused on itself and its own efforts, is hostile to God; it will never accept God’s provision of salvation in Christ. No matter who much it tries, it does not submit to God’s law, it cannot submit to God’s law, and it therefore cannot please God. It will never succeed in being good enough.

8.9 – here Paul states the base line contrast: it is the contrast between those who do not have the Spirit of Christ and those in whom the Spirit of God dwells (that is, every believer); it is the contrast between those who are ‘in Christ’ and those who are not ‘in Christ’.

8.10, 11 – it is the contrast between death (because of sin) and life (through the Spirit).

The above contrasts clearly identify the ‘according to flesh’ people as those who have not received Jesus Christ and his salvation, and the ‘according to Spirit’ people as those who have. Verse 9 is particularly powerful in this respect.

The difficulty we have with this passage is due to the automatic performance based perception that most of us have concerning our relationship with God. It goes contrary to our social and work culture, our expectations and our pride to relate to God on the basis of his mercy instead of our personal merit. We, in our pride and self-sufficiency, do not easily give up our significance. We like to think that we, in ourselves, ‘according to flesh’, have what it takes to satisfy both God’s moral standards and God’s justice. We do not want to simply trust. We do not want to live before God solely on the basis of his mercy and grace. Even when it is to our detriment and our loss. Even when it is impossible.

The choice is quite simple: to try to get right with God by our own efforts, and consistently and inevitably fail. Or, to trust only in Christ, in whom there is guaranteed and permanent salvation.

The one means death and condemnation. The other is life and peace.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020