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. – Romans 8:5-8 ESV
What do you think about? Where does your mind go in times of difficulty? What kinds of thoughts fill your minds when things are going well? We are always thinking. Even when we attempt to go to sleep at night our minds are filled with thoughts – some good, some bad, some pleasant and some disturbing. All throughout the day, we worry, daydream, plan, plot, reminisce, regret, decide, doubt, and utilize our mind in a myriad of ways. But in these verses, Paul would have us wrestle with the question: On what is our mind set? Because the answer to that question will inevitably determine our mind-set as we live on this planet. If our mind is set on the flesh, Paul states, it will show up in the way we live our lives. It will be revealed in our mind-set or inclinations and attitudes. The flesh Paul is speaking about is not just referring to our sinful nature, though that is part of the problem. It is life apart from Christ. That is why Paul says the outcome of a mind that is set on the flesh is death, while the outcome of a mind set on the Spirit is life.
In his book, Life By the Spirit, Arthur Wood writes, “Flesh, then is the life of man apart from the touch of God. It is human nature on its material level, divorced from any contact with the spiritual. In a word, flesh is man adrift from God.” Philip Melanchthon, the German reformer and collaborator with Martin Luther, said that the flesh was “the entire nature of man without the Holy Spirit.” So the question is, can a believer who has the Holy Spirit of God living within him, live “according to the flesh”? And the answer, according to Paul, is a resounding, “Yes!” That is the whole reason for this passage. Each and every day of our lives we have the choice to live “according to” or in keeping with the flesh or the Spirit. And it all depends on which one of the two we choose to set our mind. To set your mind on the flesh is to live obsessed with the things of this world. It is to operate under the mind-set or attitude that this is all there is, that all of your joy, contentment, satisfaction and pleasure are determined by what this world has to offer. Arthur Wood writes, “What Paul is talking about here is the dominant interest of a man’s life, the bent of his desire, the goal of all his activities.” In other words, he is talking about our ambition.
Paul is contrasting two ways of life. The life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit. He is not talking about live in the flesh, and that is an important distinction. We all have to live life in the flesh. We have no choice. Even Jesus Christ lived in the flesh. Back in verse 3, Paul states that God, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Jesus took on human flesh and yet we are told, “he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NLT). Jesus lived in the flesh, but did not live by or according to the flesh. Jesus did not live for this world. He died for the sins of this world. Jesus did not have an ambition to get rich, comfortable, famous, important, or popular. His intent was to do the will of His Father, to live in obedience to the Spirit of God, even to the point of death. And we are to be like Him. That is why Paul says, “seek the things that are above” and “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2 ESV). John Wesley wrote that those who “mind the things of the flesh” are those who “have their thoughts and affections fixed on such things as gratify corrupt nature; namely, on things visible and temporal; on things of earth, on pleasure, praise, or riches.”
If we live with our minds set on the things of this world, believing that they alone can deliver what we are looking for, we will end up with a mind-set or attitude that leads to spiritual death. No, we will not lose our salvation, but we will miss out on the joy, peace, contentment, power and abundant life that we have been promised in Christ. Life lived according to the flesh, with the mind set on the flesh, will always disappoint. It can never deliver what it promises. But the mind set on the Spirit results in life – abundant life. Those who make it their ambition to get the most out of this life, the life of the flesh, will find themselves disillusioned and disappointed in the end. Jesus made it clear, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT). But do we believe it? Do we live like it? Or do we seek the kingdom of this world above all else, and live according the flesh, thinking that it can deliver all that we need?
So it all boils down to this: On what are you going to set your mind? What will be your ambition, your obsession? Will it be the things that this world has to offer or the things God has promised through His Son? One brings death and disappointment. The other brings life and peace. Sounds like a fairly clear choice, but a choice nonetheless.