The Holy Spirit Is Essential to a Holy Life

Life Impact: This lesson can help you live a holy life by depending on God’s Spirit rather than striving in your own power to try to please God and live for Him.

God’s Spirit Changes Our Mind-set: Romans 8:5-9.

[5]  For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. [6]  For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, [7]  because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so,

[8]  and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. [9]  However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.    [NASU]

In these verses Paul develops the antithesis between flesh and Spirit. Paul’s purpose is to explain why obedience to the law is possible only to those who walk according to the Spirit. By flesh Paul means the whole of our humanness viewed as corrupt and unredeemed, our fallen, ego-centric human nature, or more briefly the sin-dominated self. By spirit in this passage Paul means not the higher aspect of our humanness viewed as ‘spiritual’ but rather the personal Holy Spirit Himself who now not only regenerates but also indwells the people of God. This tension between flesh and spirit is reminiscent of Gal. 5.16-26, where they are in irreconcilable conflict with each other. Here Paul concentrates on the mind, or mindset, of those who are characterized by either flesh or spirit.

First, our mindset expresses our basic nature as Christians or non-Christians [5]. In both cases their nature determines their mindset. Moreover, since the flesh is our twisted human nature, its desires are all those things which pander to our ungodly self-centeredness. Since the Spirit is the Holy Spirit Himself, however, His desires are all those things which please Him, who loves above all else to glorify Christ, that is, to show Christ to us and form Christ in us. Now to set the mind on the desires of flesh or spirit is to make them the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection and purpose. It is a question of what preoccupies us, of the ambitions which drive us and the concerns which engross us, of how we spend our time and our energies, of what we concentrate on and give ourselves up to. All this is determined by who we are, whether we are still in the flesh or are now by new birth in the Spirit. Secondly, our mindset has eternal consequences [6]. The mindset of flesh-dominated people is already one of spiritual death and leads inevitably to eternal death, for it alienates them from God and renders fellowship with Him impossible in either this world or the next. The mindset of Spirit-dominated people, however, entails life and peace. On the one hand they are alive to God [6:11], alert to spiritual realities, and thirsty for God like nomads in the desert, like deer panting for streams. On the other hand, they have peace with God [5:1], peace with their neighbor [12:15], and peace within, enjoying an inner integration or harmony.

Thirdly, our mindset concerns our fundamental attitude to God [7-8]. The reason the mind of the flesh is death is that it is hostile to God, cherishing a deep-seated animosity against Him. It is antagonistic to His name, kingdom and will, to His day, His people and His word, to His Son, His Spirit and His glory. In particular, Paul singles out his moral standards. In contrast to the regenerate who delight in God’s law [7:22], the unregenerate mind does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so [7], which explains why those who live according to the flesh cannot fulfill the law’s righteous requirement [4]. Finally, those who are controlled by the sinful nature, lacking the Spirit of God, cannot please God [8]. They cannot please Him because they cannot submit to His law, whereas, it is implied, those who are in the Spirit set themselves to please Him in everything.

Verse 9 is of great importance in relation to our doctrine of the Holy Spirit for at least two reasons. First, it teaches that the hallmark of the authentic believer is the possession or indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Indwelling sin [7:17,20] is the lot of all the children of Adam; the privilege of the children of God is to have the indwelling Spirit to fight and subdue indwelling sin. Secondly, verse 9 teaches that several different expressions are synonyms. We have already seen that being in the Spirit is the same as having the Spirit in us. Now we note that the Spirit of God is also called the Spirit of Christ, and that to have the Spirit of Christ in us [9b] is to have Christ in us [10a].

God’s Spirit Empowers Us: Romans 8:10-13.

[10]  If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. [11]  But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. [12]  So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– [13]  for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.    [NASU]

After affirming that to have the Spirit in us is the distinguishing mark of Christ’s people, Paul proceeds to indicate two major consequences of His indwelling. Both verse 10 and verse 11 begin with an ‘if’ clause relating to this indwelling. These two ‘ifs’ do not express any doubt about the fact of the indwelling, but they point to its results. What are these? The first Paul describes in terms of life [10-11] and the second in terms of debt or obligation [12-13]. Verse 10 raises two main questions. The first is: what death of the body is being referred to? It is better to understand dead as indicating mortal, that is, subject to death and destined for it. This would fit in with Paul’s references in Romans to our mortal bodies [6:12; 8:11b] and elsewhere to our physical decaying and dying. At the same time, in the midst of our physical mortality, our spirit is alive, for we have been quickened or made alive in Christ [6:11,13,23). What, however, is the cause of this double condition, namely a dying body and a living spirit? The answer lies in the repeated because, which attributes death to sin and life to righteousness. Our bodies became mortal because of Adam’s sin, whereas our spirits are alive because of Christ’s righteousness [5:15-18,21], that is, because of the righteous standing He has secured for us. The ultimate destiny of our body is not death, however, but resurrection. To this further truth Paul now proceeds in verse 11. Our bodies are not yet redeemed [23], but they will be, and we are eagerly awaiting this event. How can we be so sure about it? Because of the nature of the indwelling Spirit. He is not only the Spirit of life [2], but the Spirit of resurrection. Further, Christ’s resurrection is the pledge and the pattern of ours. Resurrection includes transformation, the raising and changing of our body into a new and glorious vehicle of our personality, and its liberation from all frailty, disease, pain, decay and death. The resurrection body will be the perfect vehicle of our redeemed personality.

We come now to the second consequence of the dwelling in us of God or Christ through the Spirit. The first was life; the second is a debt or obligation. What is this debt? It is to live a righteous life [12-13]. Our obligation is to the Spirit, to live according to His desires and dictates. Paul’s argument seems to be this: if the indwelling Spirit has given us life, which He has [10], we cannot possibly live according to the flesh, since that way leads to death. How can we possess life and court death simultaneously? Such an inconsistency between who we are and how we behave is unthinkable, even ludicrous. No, we are in debt to the indwelling Spirit of life to live out our God-given life and to put to death everything which threatens it or is incompatible with it. Verse 13 sets the option before us as a solemn life-and-death alternative. There is a kind of life which leads to death, and there is a kind of death which leads to life. Verse 13 thus becomes a very significant verse on the neglected topic of mortification (the process of putting to death the body’s misdeeds). It clarifies at least three truths about it. (1) What is mortification? It is a clear-sighted recognition of evil as evil, leading to such a decisive and radical repudiation of it that no imagery can do it justice except putting to death. Elsewhere the apostle has called it a crucifixion of our fallen nature, with all its passions and desires. We are to put to death the misdeeds of the body, that is, every use of our body (our eyes, ears, mouth, hands or feet) which serves ourselves instead of God and other people. (2) How does mortification take place? We note at once that it is something that we have to do. In the work of mortification we are not passive, waiting for it to be done to us or for us. On the contrary, we are responsible for putting evil to death. True, Paul immediately adds that we can put to death the misdeeds of the body only by the Spirit, by His agency and power. For only He can give us the desire, determination and discipline to reject evil. Nevertheless, it is we who must take the initiative to act. Negatively, we must totally repudiate everything we know to be wrong, and not even think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature [13:14]. If temptation comes to us through what we see, handle or visit, then we must be ruthless in not looking, not touching, not going, thereby controlling the very approaches of sin. Positively, we are to set our minds on the things the Spirit desires [5], set our hearts on things above [Col 3:1f], and occupy our thoughts with what is noble, right, pure and lovely. In this way mortification (putting evil to death) and aspiration (hungering and thirsting for what is good) are counterparts. Both verbs (set their minds and put to death) are in the present tense, for they describe attitudes and activities which should be continuous, involving taking up the cross every day and setting our minds on the things of the Spirit every day. (3) Why should we practice mortification? We need strong motives to engage in this putting to death evil desires. One is that we have an obligation [12] to the indwelling Spirit of life. Another, on which Paul now insists, is that the death of mortification is the only road to life. This rich, abundant, satisfying life, he is saying, can be enjoyed only by those who put their misdeeds to death. What the world calls life (a desirable self-indulgence) leads to alienation from God which in reality is death, whereas the putting to death of all perceived evil within us, which the world sees as an undesirable self-abnegation, is in reality the way to authentic life.

God’s Spirit Confirms Our Adoption: Romans 8:14-17.

[14]  For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. [15]  For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" [16]  The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, [17]  and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.    [NASU]

What is immediately noteworthy about this paragraph is that in each of its four verses God’s people are designated His children or sons, which is related to the work of the Holy Spirit. The question is: precisely how is the Spirit’s witness borne? Paul assembles four pieces of evidence. First, the Spirit leads us into holiness [14]. Verse 14 clarifies verse 13 by changing the imagery. Those who through the Spirit put the body’s misdeeds to death [13b] are now called those who are led by the Spirit [14a], while those who have entered into fullness of life [13c] are now called sons of God [14b]. The daily, hourly putting to death of the schemings and enterprises of the sinful flesh by means of the Spirit is a matter of being led, directed, impelled, controlled by the Spirit. Next, if to be led by the Spirit of God [14a] is an elaboration of to put to death the misdeeds of the body by the agency of the Spirit [13b], then the statement that you are sons of God [14b] elaborates the promise you will live [13c]. The new, rich, full life, which is enjoyed by those who put their misdeeds to death, is precisely the experience of being God’s children. Just as it is only those who are indwelt by the Spirit who belong to Christ [9], so it is only those who are led by the Spirit who are the sons and daughters of God [14]. As such we are granted a specially close, personal, loving relationship with our heavenly Father, immediate and bold access to Him in prayer, membership of His worldwide family, and nomination as His heirs, to which Paul will come in verse 17. He now enlarges on some of these privileges. Secondly, the Spirit replaces fear with freedom in our relationship to God [15]. Both here in verse 15 and in Galatians 4:1ff. Paul uses the imagery of slavery and freedom with which to contrast the two eras, the old age and the new, and so our pre- and post-conversion situation. The slavery of the old age led to fear, especially of God as our judge; the freedom of the new age gives us boldness to approach God as our Father. Freedom, not fear, now rules our lives. Thirdly, the Spirit prompts us in our prayers to call God ‘Father’ [15]. The Holy Spirit bears a strong inward witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. Fourthly, the Spirit is the firstfruits of our inheritance [17,23]. The same indwelling Spirit who assures us that we are God’s children also assures us that we are His heirs. There is a qualification, however: if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory [17a]. Scripture lays a strong emphasis on the principle that suffering is the path to glory. The essence of discipleship is union with Christ, and this means identification with Him in both His sufferings and His glory.

God’s Spirit Helps Our Prayers: Romans 8:26-27.

[26]  In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; [27]  and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.     [NASU]

Prayer is in itself an essentially Trinitarian exercise. It is access to the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. The inspiration of the Spirit is just as necessary for our prayers as the mediation of the Son. In general, the Spirit helps us in our weakness [26a]. In particular, He helps our weakness in prayer. In this sphere our infirmity is our ignorance: We do not know what we ought to pray for [26b]. But He knows what we do not know. In consequence, the Spirit Himself intercedes for us [26c]. Thus the children of God have two divine intercessors. Christ is their intercessor in the court of heaven, while the Holy Spirit is their intercessor in the theatre of their own hearts. Why do we not know what to pray for? Perhaps because we are unsure whether to pray for deliverance from our sufferings or for strength to endure them. Also, since we do not know what we will be, or when or how, we are in no position to make precise requests. So the Spirit intercedes for us, and does so with speechless groans. The Holy Spirit identifies with our groans, with the pain of the world and the church, and shares in the longing for the final freedom of both. We and He groan together. Although wordless, however, they are not meaningless. For God the Father, who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will [27]. So three persons are involved in our praying. First, we ourselves in our weakness do not know what to pray for. Secondly, the indwelling Spirit helps us by interceding for us and through us, with speechless groans but according to God’s will. Thirdly, God the Father, who both searches our hearts and knows the Spirit’s mind, hears and answers accordingly. Of these actors, however, it is the Spirit who is emphasized in these verses.

Questions for Discussion:

1.          In 8:5-8, Paul contrasts the way of life according to the flesh with the way of life according to the Spirit. List as many contrasts as you can find in these verses. Why do you think Paul places such importance upon the mind in this contrast between flesh and Spirit?

2.          What is mortification, how does mortification take place and why should we practice mortification? Discuss the role we play and the role the Spirit plays in this process.

3.          Romans 8:14-17 tells what is true of us if we are led and indwelt by the Spirit. Think of the implications for our lives if we truly see ourselves as children of God. How will this impact the way we live as we face all the difficulties, struggles and joys of life?

4.          Are there times in your life when you just do not know what or how to pray? What comfort does 8:26-27 give you? How do you put the fact that the Spirit intercedes for you into practice in your prayer life?


The Epistle to the Romans, John Murray, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Intervarsity.

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