Romans 8:1-17

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at

This discussion is on Romans 8, a very ‘spiritual’ chapter—Paul has mentioned the Holy Spirit only three times so far in Romans, but there are more than 20 references in this chapter. But in speaking so much about the Spirit, and especially in contrast with the ‘flesh’, Paul lays out a vision of being a Spirit-person—being ‘spiritual’—that is vastly different and vastly better than the spirituality our world offers.

Two expositions on Romans 8 can be found in the series Romans 1990 Campus Bible Study.

The next episode is The Bowels of Compassion. The previous episode is The Fight.


The Spirit-life of Romans 8 is not what our world expects.

Tony Payne: The word ‘spirit’ or the idea of spirituality is one we still have in our culture today. It’s one we use and throw about a fair bit. But as we come to Romans 8, which talks a lot about spirit and the spiritual, we notice that the way it thinks about what it means to be spiritual is quite different from how we’ve been brought up in our culture to think about spirituality.

Phillip Jensen: Very different to celebrity spirituality. Celebrities today often say “I’m very spiritual. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”

TP:  What do they mean when they say, “I’m a spiritual person”?

PJ: I don’t know what they mean, but I think they demonstrate a complete lack of any meaning. I think they are trying to say, “I’m not one of those hard-bitten atheists. I want to make sure that the religious people also buy my music. It means I’m a person.”

TP: It’s almost like saying, “I’m not one of those crass, purely material, rich, greedy, sort of people. I’ve got a spiritual side.” By which they mean there’s some kind of inner, immaterial, non-tangible, good stuff that I’m somehow connected to. I have an inner life. Something that is inner and intangible and positive in a way, but also very hard to put your finger on.

PJ: Yes, it is a positive buzz word for religion. So if I say I’m religious or I’m in organized religion or I’m in church, that will not be positive at all. But if I’m spiritual, that’s an inoffensive, if not slightly positive, thing that a person says about themselves. And if you’re spiritual, you’re not going to impose it on anyone else. Nor is it in any sense rational. 

TP: A relative of mine once bought what I think is the most expensive stereo system I’ve ever seen or encountered. I think the whole system cost about $35,000, and this was three decades ago. It was a stunning thing. And when you played it, it didn’t matter what you played. You could play ABBA, you could play Bach, anything you played through that system just profoundly affected your whole person. The sound was just out of this world. And I said, “What did you buy this for? That’s a lot of money.” And she said, “I needed something more. And when I listen to music through that system, it’s a spiritual experience.”

PJ: It wasn’t materialist, it was spiritual.

TP: You could listen to anything and it just affected you because the sound was just so extraordinary. It touched something deeper and inner in experiential. So I think that’s how our society thinks about spirit and spirituality to some extent, that it’s inward and non-tangible and to do with me and my deepest self somehow. It’s the romanticist spirit of our age to some extent.

PJ: Yes, such as New Age spirituality, which has to do with the journey inward deeper and deeper into myself. 

TP: That’s right. Whereas we’ll see in Romans 8 that biblical spirituality is not really like that. It’s not connected to what’s deeper and deeper inside of me, it’s actually connected to something beyond me, which is God.

PJ: Yes. Spirituality in the non-Christian world doesn’t actually have a spirit. It has my inner self.

TP: It’s getting in touch with something supernatural or immaterial that is within me.

PJ: Whereas the Bible is talking about the Holy Spirit. He’s talking about the person of the Godhead, namely, the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has been sent by Jesus into this world. And so you’re not dealing with a force. You’re not dealing with your own inner life, you’re dealing with God.

TP: And God, as we’ve been seeing throughout the whole book of Romans, is righteous and holy. There’s a moral truth and goodness with God. But I get the sense that contemporary spirituality is not talking about something moral. 

PJ: No, it’s always purposely amoral. It’s not immoral; it’s just without morality. You meditate or levitate or regenerate whatever it is that you are doing. You sit under the pyramid or do something with crystals. And these kinds of things somehow make you a better person, but not necessarily a more moral person, just a person full of more wellness, whatever that may mean. 

TP: A more rounded kind of person, a person who is in touch with themselves. 

PJ: Yes, and the deeper instincts of a more authentic person. And so it’s really got nothing to do with right and wrong, good and bad, evil or sin. It’s just “I’m spiritual”.

TP: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when you talk about spirituality in our culture, you’re not really talking about morality. And when you talk about morality, in our culture, you hardly ever talk about spirituality.

PJ: Yes, you go to ethics training but you don’t bring God into it. You mustn’t have God in ethics, otherwise that will foul up your whole way of thinking. And so morality is the rules and regulations, the rationality by which you can come to decisions as to appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, which therefore is right or wrong. But it fails just as much, because without God, in a completely naturalistic world, there can’t be any morality. 

If the world is just a complete accident, you can’t move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. There is a tree therefore I ought to… cut it down, build a bridge out of it, leave it alone? We can’t know that. But if God has planted the tree for certain purposes, well, then there can be ‘oughts’. But you’ve got to have something outside yourself to create a basis for morality. And so you’ve got on one hand amoral spirituality. But on the other hand, you’ve got this spiritual morality. And, sadly, there are some churches that get caught up in that morality of the humanist party, and they are indistinguishable from each other. Those churches are the ones that the society likes and looks at the good works they’re doing. Church is acceptable if it does good works.

TP: If it adopts the morality that the culture believes in. 

PJ: Yes, which of course is a moving target, the fashions of morality. The temptation is for the church to advertise itself in terms of that kind of good public relations. But we mustn’t expect that in following the crucified Lord Jesus, the world is going to love us. If we are authentic to Jesus, a relationship with God that comes through the Lord Jesus Christ’s death for our sin and his resurrection, by which he pours out his Spirit to change us, that makes us a very different kind of morality and spirituality than the ones we see in the world.

TP: And that’s what we see in Romans 8. We see the connection between Spirit and spirituality, between life and living in righteousness. We need to dig into Romans 8 because of some of its verses are a little complicated, especially its opening verses. But it very much connects these two things that our world tends to disconnect.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 

PJ: You said it was complicated. 

TP: What’s difficult about that? 

PJ: There’s a whole series of contrasts there. You have got contrast between spirit and flesh, between life and death.

TP: And there’s righteousness and sin as well. There’s a contrast between evil and good in that sense. 

PJ: Yes. What flesh that is being contrasted with spirit?

TP: At first glance, you think it is a contrast between inner and outer, between the physical flesh and the Spirit. But it’s not quite the inner and outer because the Spirit is coming to us from outside. It’s the Spirit of life that’s come from God. So what is the difference between flesh and Spirit? What’s going on here? 

PJ: Well, ‘flesh’ is one of those words that Paul uses in contrast to Spirit, basically to just talk of the mortal world we are in now. The world of Satan and therefore judgment that falls upon sin. And because the flesh, which is humanity, is in hostility towards God, in rebellion against God, it is under the judgment of God. So ‘flesh’ is that which is opposed to God and therefore facing death and mortality. It’s a bodily state, but it’s not platonic. The works of the flesh involve things like envy, rivalry, dissension. They involve desire, which we would call sins of the spirit. But they’re not. They’re the works of the flesh.

TP: All the same, there’s a kind of a bodily nature to it in the sense that it’s the world opposed to God. It’s also us opposed to God; it’s that part of us. And we saw last week in Romans 7, Paul contrasts it with his mind–what I delight in, in my ‘inner man’. There’s a part of me that’s new now, that’s devoted to God. My mind is now set in a whole new place, I’m now in a new status. But it’s like I’ve got this fleshly body that’s so used to doing the wrong thing that it just keeps doing the wrong thing by muscle memory, even though my mind is set in a different place now. So it’s not just a complete duality between inner and outer, but there is some kind of bodily nature to it and why he keeps sinning. 

PJ: Yes and we can understand this passage by keeping on reading. When you read the passage carefully through, you notice the little word ‘for’ or ‘because’ which shows how the verses rely upon each other, explain each other. So I think verse 3 is the key of that opening paragraph. That is—“because God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, couldn’t do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” The gospel lies at the heart of what we’re talking about. Jesus’ death on our behalf lies at the heart of it. And that explains what he has meant in verses 1 and 2. But it also shows where it’s heading in verse 4. But then verse 5 opens up another paragraph, which explains the whole of verses 1 to 4. So why don’t you read verse 5 onwards because I think that picks up what you were just saying about the mind in particular. 

TP: Romans 8:5-7

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. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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. 

PJ: That’s much easier to understand, but much more unacceptable as an idea, isn’t it? Because the contrast is still there, the mind of the flesh and the mind of the Spirit; the life or death. But it really pushes the ‘two ways’ in a way that the world would find, I think, almost unacceptable—that is, that the mind set on the flesh doesn’t please God and cannot please God. That is, without the Spirit, you are absolutely incapable of doing that which pleases God. That is a very stark statement, isn’t it? 

TP: And that’s true in our experience, too. It’s what we are naturally like. And it has been the message of Romans to this point, that no-one can be justified. No-one seeks God, we’re all like this in our natural selves, with our minds and our whole sense of who we are set on ourselves in rebellion against God. Nothing we can do can please God. 

PJ: And we think that’s our choice. If we want to please God, we can; if we don’t want to please God, we don’t have to. But in fact, it’s saying you can’t. It is not actually possible for you to do it. As the child of Adam, you’re born in sin and incapable of doing that which pleases God. I don’t think most people are willing to take the sinfulness of humanity as seriously as the Bible does, as the Bible is teaching it. They think, well, I can choose God if I wanted. But that puts me in charge and God at my disposal. It’s the old thing that I’m now on the bench and he’s in the dock, and I’m going to judge him as to whether I’m going to follow him or not. 

TP: As soon as you’ve adopted that pose—me as judge and God in the dock—you’ve already rejected God because you’ve put yourself above him. And that’s been the argument of Romans all the way through, right from the very beginning back in chapter 1 with that fundamental rejection of God. Our mind is darkened and becomes futile because it gets set on ourselves. We exchange the good for the evil. We find ourselves then just trapped in the situation. Having rejected and rebelled against God, there’s no way back. Because we’re locked in our own world, full of ourselves. And even when we start to think of God, we think of him from the point of view of what I am going to make of him and I wonder whether he meets my standards of believability.

PJ: And we think of God as less than God. I’m going to talk about God who rules and judges over me. But I’m going to rule and judge over him. Well, then it’s not God I’m now thinking about; it’s less than God that I’m thinking about. And so lies are self-condemnatory. They don’t work. And the great lie that “God is not God” is one that captures us into, frankly, stupidity.

TP: And you say you were saying verses 5 to 8 unfold and explain what those earlier verses were saying as well. Our mind is set on the flesh, set on ourselves and rejection of God. There’s no escape, there’s only condemnation, there’s only death. There’s only one way out of this situation. Thanks be to God that there is no condemnation anymore for those who are, instead of being in the flesh and in rebellion against God, now in Christ Jesus.

PJ: And because Christ Jesus is the one sent in the likeness of sinful flesh, for sin, condemning sin in the flesh, that he is the one through whom God has broken this terrible captivity that we are in so that we could live differently. And so the mind that is set on the Spirit is life. The contrast is there. It’s the Spirit within us that Jesus, who has died and risen for us, now sends to change and transform.

TP: Which is the logic of verses 3 and 4 that we were looking at before that are a little bit too hard to follow the first time through. God has done what the law weakened by the flesh couldn’t by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and in doing this he condemned sin in the flesh. And why? What’s the consequence? Verse four: in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk no longer according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. What Jesus has done objectively by coming and dying and condemning sin and setting us free, that’s in order that something might happen in us that we might be not only acceptable to God, no condemnation, but now might walk in a whole new life, a whole new existence in the Spirit.

PJ: And the law is a key element to it in the sense that sin has a lot of might, but not right. The law is right. It’s spiritual, it’s godly. Chapter 7 tells us how good the law is but while the law is right, it does not have the might to give life. It can’t do it because of sin in us. But what Jesus has done in paying for our sin, and what Jesus has done in sending us the Spirit, now the Spirit has both right and might to change us and transform us. So verses 9 to 11 speak of this living in the Spirit. 

TP: So contrasting it with those in the flesh, who cannot please God. Romans 8:9: 

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  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. 

PJ: Transforming life is now. No longer is the mind set on the flesh and death. Now the mind is set on the Spirit, on life. But that life that we now have is going to be a moral life, a changed life, which is what the next paragraph (verses 12 to 17) deals with.

TP: Because it talks about obligation. If this is what has now happened, then there’s something quite different put in front of us. And the word in the ESV is ‘debtors’ in verse 12. I think in other translations, it’s ‘obligation’. It’s what we owe. 

So then brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

PJ: He raises several issues there for us. Firstly, it gives us the moral obligation of that which we can now do. Anything of flesh has not been good for me and I don’t owe the flesh anything. But because of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ and his resurrection, I now owe to the Spirit the life that he has given me. And so I’m now to put to death the deeds of the flesh. 

How can I do that? I’ve never been able to do that. Well, I can now because the Holy Spirit leads me to do it. People have all kinds of ideas of the leading of the Holy Spirit. The book we wrote, The Coming of the Holy Spirit, has a little appendix on the leading of the Spirit because the phrase, common in Christian parlance, is quite uncommon in the Scriptures. The leading of the Spirit is twofold: it’s always to God as our Father and away from sin. That’s why he’s called the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t lead me to understanding calculus or whether I should work for the Commonwealth Bank or the Bank of New South Wales or something.

TP: I think it’s called the Westpac Bank now, Phillip; has been for some decades. 

PJ: Be that as it may, he doesn’t lead me to either of those. He leads me to put to death the deeds of the body and he leads me into the family that is regenerating me—that is, leading me to call God ‘Abba, Father’. And so instead of ‘spiritual’ being the journey inwards, the journey of the Spirit is moral and relational.

TP: It is so different from our worldly understanding, and especially even in thinking that relationships are also about morality. I think that’s one of the other contrasts I’ve come across in my Christian history—that because there’s such an element on relationship with God (God is now my father, I can relate to him as father, Jesus is my brother and friend), then the focus is really on the sense of warmth and relationship and intimacy, and not so much on holiness or godliness or righteousness. As if that’s a separate thing. But here, as you say, the Spirit leads us not only into the intimacy of relationship with God as our Father, but into a new godly life that kills of the misdeeds of our body. We have an obligation to live the way a son of God would live.

PJ: Yes. And being in the family also means that we are heirs to our future, fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him that we may be glorified with him. That is, it doesn’t remove me from this world; it actually takes me into the world of the flesh, and therefore into the conflict that I will have with the flesh. 

But that takes us into the rest of chapter 8, which we’ll get to in a couple of weeks time. 

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