How to Walk according to the Spirit – Romans 8:5-8

Paul often contrasts living one’s life according to the flesh with living according to the Spirit. Galatians 5:16-25 a prime example, but there are others. This is an example of a “two ways” passage common in Judaism (Psalm 1) and early Christianity (Didache). On can either live out their life on the “road of righteousness” or the “road of wickedness.” This “two ways” thinking is ultimately based on the blessing and curses of the Law, which Moses called a “way of life” or a “way of death” (Deut 30:11-20).

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Usually a writer would list a series of virtues and vices without any sort of description, as Paul does in the Galatians, the “deeds of the flesh” are listed in contrast to the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul does not give a list of virtues or vices here since his purpose is simply to contrast the flesh and the Spirit.

In Greek philosophy, virtues were often the balance between two vices (bravery is the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness). Aristotle called virtue the “golden mean” between two vices. But for Paul, there is no middle ground: Paul is describing our spiritual lives as either dead to sin or alive in Christ, walking according to the flesh or walking according to the Spirit.

A person can “set the mind on the flesh” or “set the mind on the Spirit.” The contrast is between “mindset” (φρόνημα) only appears in Romans 8 in the New Testament, although the word-group is more common in the LXX. The word-group refers to a pattern of thinking, something like a worldview in contemporary English. Like worldview, this word can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on what makes up a person’s worldview. For example, φρόνησις for עָרְמָה in Job 5:13 for “presumptuous cleverness” (TDNT 9:224). Josephus used this word to describe the “tree of knowledge” (τὸ φυτὸν τῆς φρονήσεως, Ant., 1.37; LXX has τοῦ εἰδέναι). Josephus uses the same word when Solomon asks for wisdom (Ant. 8.23; TDNT 9:229).

If we imagine a worldview as a lens through which we look at reality, then a “mindset” in Romans 8 can either be flesh or Spirit. For any given issue, someone who does not have the Spirit of God may offer a solution radically different than those who walk by the Spirit. In the first century, for example, the value of a person who was a slave would be much different for a Christian than for an unsaved Roman. The same might be true for a person who was very ill; a Christian might risk their lives to help a sick person but a Roman might just let them die.

The most part this “Judeo-Christian ethic” has so permeated western culture even non-Christians see the value of most life (although there are notable exceptions). But there are many other ways a Christian will look at an ethical issue differently than a non-Christian. Let me offer two example, one bad example and one good.

First, the bad example: in the 1980s James Watt was secretary of the interior. He was a conservative Christian who genuinely believed Jesus was going to return very soon. Because of this he saw no value in caring for the environment, saying “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” For Watt, his particular theological views blinded him to the importance of caring for the environment embedded the creation mandate in Genesis 1.

Second, a good example: during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius plague broke out in Rome. The Emperor quickly left Rome, as did anyone with any means to do so. Compassion for the sick and dying was not a value in Roman culture. Christians, on the other hand, saw plague as an opportunity to care for people who were in desperate need, serving people who had no hope with love and compassion.

What are some other (positive) examples of a Christian worldview changing the way people think about an issue?



3 thoughts on “How to Walk according to the Spirit – Romans 8:5-8

  1. A “way of life” versus a “way of death” that Moses describes in Deuteronomy is a staple of Christianity. In other words, a believer or a Christian is expected to live a different life than those who are not in Christ and are not believers or Christians. This is where a “way of life” comes into play. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers is expected to transform their mind, heart, and soul in a way that breathes life to everyone who comes into contact with them. People outside of faith may not be able to have this same effect or impact because of a lack of transformation.

    In terms of Christian worldviews, they definitely affect how people think and view an issue. For instance, a close friend of mine is currently struggling with unemployment and finding a job that matches their collegiate degree. They have been extremely diligent in completing applications and working very hard to find a job. The process has been difficult and humbling, but many of my friends’ family and friends that are Christians are really preaching the importance of looking at this process as God closing doors for a better door to open in the future. God’s plan is at work in this situation. This is a positive example of where a Christian worldview would affect how someone looks at a specific issue; a societal or secular view of this situation would be one of frustration, complaints, and impatience.

    Another common example of a Christian worldview affecting how people view a specific issue is when someone is struggling financially, they see it as an opportunity to rely on God and not their own ability to provide. Philippians 4:19 mentions the idea that God will provide in one’s life. Christian worldviews commonly view challenges as an opportunity to turn to God and rely on God, rather than rely on oneself. In contrast, secular worldviews can be more emotional and reactive.

    As a Christian, it is commonly used that people should be a light for God to others. This is heard often in prayer. It is an excellent theological concept, and I believe that summarizes the idea of living a “way of life” rather than a “way of death.”

    Lastly, I find it incredibly important that it is understood that sinning does not mean that one is “living in the flesh.” Sinful action and behavior is definitely a trait of a lifestyle in the flesh. However, all people, even Christians, sin. According to the ESV Study Bible (2008), “To set the mind on the flesh means to think continually about and constantly desire the things characteristic of fallen, sinful human nature, that is, to think just the way the unbelieving world thinks, emphasizing what it thinks important, pursuing what it pursues, in disregard of God’s will” (p. 2170). This is a perfect summation of this lifestyle and mind on the flesh. Christians that sin are not disregarding God’s will, but they are still falling short. There is a difference.


  2. Other than God another foundation of Christianity is having faith. This means we do not let fear or doubt enter into our lives. The reason behind this is because know and believe the God is, omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresence. There is nothing on this earth that God has not already foreseen. No one else is more powerful than He is. God is present at all times as He has been before the foundations of this earth was laid. We chose to serve God through the knowledge and understanding that His Love and Grace will forever be sufficient enough for us. These gifts He constantly grants us gives us purpose and strength to continue to move forward. No matter what circumstances we may face we know that God has already gone before us and won the battle on our behalf. This is why He sent His one and only son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins. As a Christian this is a perspective that I try to carry over in all my situations. Others may consider it fake optimism or just being fake in general. What they do not know though is all the situations God has already brought me out of in my life. I know for a fact that other Christians feel the same too and try and do the same in their situations (even though sometimes it is easier said than done). Then when we discover this faith we try and share it with others. When this happens then a ripple effect follows shortly after. Prayer warriors start to rise up, people become Christians for the first, or they rededicate their life to Christ, and faith is strengthened. There is no situation that God cannot handle and that is a fact. Which, is why as Christians we can look at the world with a positive lens and a sense of discernment.


  3. Very cool word study on φρόνημα. Sounds to me like a good English term for it would be “perspective” (the “tree of perspective”; Solomon asking God for perspective that would help his leadership; etc.). We need the Spirit’s perspective in order to choose and live rightly. Good stuff.


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