“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you. So then, brothers, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:8-13 HCSB)
I’m very allergic to poison ivy and it shows, literally. Whenever I get around it, I get large, itchy blisters and they spread across the area that came into contact with the plant. While I have learned of some fairly effective treatments for the blisters and itching, the best approach is to avoid contact with it. However, when it grows in your back yard then that can become a painful, itchy and challenging proposition. In fact, Tina discovered a rather large vine growing around and on the base of our willow tree. Since the cause of the itching, blisters and rash are in the plant’s oil then I could just avoid that part of the yard, or put on protective clothing and gloves and go pick all of the leaves off the vine. That might provide some temporary relief and control my exposure for a brief period of time. But, you and I know that’s not the best way.
Removing the leaves is not effective for several reasons. First, they grow back rather quickly. That is a short-lived solution. Next, removing the leaves puts me at a great risk of exposure and I try and avoid exposure, as much as possible. Also, while the leaves might be the most obvious way to be exposed to the plant’s oils, they aren’t the only source. I’m certain the vine stem and branches also contain plenty of the irritating stuff. Lastly, I’m not the only one at risk in this situation. I certainly don’t want my grandkids playing in the back yard and then breaking out with a bad case of poison ivy rash, blisters, itching and sleepless nights. So, what’s a guy to do? You go after the root. No mercy. Be direct. Be brutal. But get it out!
What do my personal allergies and skin irritations have to do with this passage? Like a persistent poison ivy vine, sin has a significant impact and causes a lot of pain and grief in our lives. In today’s focal passage, Paul is giving us insight and advice on how to address this issue. He begins by making an emphatic statement, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” While I am not going to avoid this glaring statement, I am going to wait and address it towards the end of our time together. For now, that’s HUGE and, trust me, you don’t want to overlook or miss the impact of those words. So, stay with me until the end.
John Stott: If you let the remaining sinful nature alone — if you allow it to prosper and grow — there will be terrible trouble. Instead, you must by the Spirit attack and put it to death. The more you put to death the sinful nature, the more you will enjoy the spiritual life that the Holy Spirit gives — life and peace.
So, let’s begin with the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer. There’s no getting around Paul’s insistence that EVERY true believer has the Holy Spirit in their life. Not an option. If you belong to Christ then you have the Spirit. If you don’t have the Spirit then you don’t belong to Christ. As a believer, the question is not whether you have the Holy Spirit or not but how much you are yielded to the Spirit’s guidance, leadership and control. We have often focused on having more and more of the Holy Spirit and that’s the wrong approach. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is God, just like the Father and Son. Let’s see if I can explain this…
The power and essence of God is not measurable or limited, even though we tend to think in those terms and concepts. However, God was fully embodied in Jesus Christ (see Col. 2:9). Since we think in terms of size or amount, then I’ll use those concepts to try and explain my meaning. The fullness of God’s essence, power and authority was present in Christ and yet it cannot be contained within the physical Universe. Whether you have a cup full of the Spirit of God, a cargo ship full or even a Universe full of God, you have all of Him. There is as much of God in the smallest particle as there is in the most expansive galaxy. So, it is not a question of how much of HIM you have but how much of YOU He has; how surrendered, how committed, how obedient, how faithful, how disciplined, how Christlike you are. Now, that brings me to Paul’s next statement…
If Christ is in you, then the body is dead because of sin but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. This goes back to previous chapters in Romans where Paul tells us the “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). The body is dead and has no ability to lead us into relationship with God and eternal life. You may remember, from our previous studies, eternal life is not primarily about longevity but is about purpose, quality and relationship with God. Eternal life is living as God meant for it to be – filled with God focused purpose, filled with righteous living, filled with Him. The problem is that we tend to listen to and believe the deceiver’s lies about what we really want and what will truly satisfy those desires. The key to this issue is clarified by Paul, “but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” When we listen to and believe the lies regarding what will satisfy our deepest longings and heart desires then those choices bring dissatisfaction and emptiness and, ultimately, result in death and separation from God.
However, as Paul points out, the Spirit brings life because of righteousness. The Spirit of God knows us better than we know ourselves but He also knows what will truly satisfy our deepest desires, our real needs and what brings us true joy and life. Guess what? It all comes through listening, believing, following and obeying the Spirit rather than the lies. The lies we hear from our own heart, mind, and personal desires or even those we hear from our friends, family, fans, culture, social media accounts, and from Satan, the father of lies. But how? How do we achieve these things? As we saw in chapter 7, the things I want to do are not the things I find myself doing and the things I don’t want to do are the very things I continually do, over and over, again.
Paul says, “if you live according to (following the ways) of the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” That’s the key. The things we feed in our lives are the ones that get stronger and tend to take control and all of our attention. So, if we feed (or focus on) our physical needs, desires, appetites and feelings then they grow stronger and dominate our lives which causes us to neglect or even ignore the things of God. But what does it mean to “put to death the deeds of the body” and how do you do it? Simply put, it means to destroy the selfish desires and self-focused needs and goals that we are so prone to follow, encourage and make the top priority in our lives. Do you remember my poison ivy vine? I can’t kill that vine by plucking leaves off it. I have two options, avoid it completely or destroy it. I don’t want to avoid my backyard and if I cut it off, it will grow back. I need to go after the root. So I can dig it up or spray it with something that will kill it and the roots. That’s what has to happen in our lives and what Paul is describing. Dig it up. Kill it at the roots. It’s time to take harsh measures to eradicate this thing from our lives.
I know, that sounds a bit radical and some of you are probably thinking that I’ve gone a bit overboard here. So, I’ll just let Jesus say it…
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!” (Matthew 5:29-30 HCSB)
Not my words, His. Jesus says that we must take sin seriously and use every measure to destroy it in our lives. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. Wow! That’s serious stuff. Have you ever noticed that the nice, sweet, loving things Jesus said are made into cultural memes for social media consumption, but the hard sayings – like this one – are relegated to a old trunk in the attic so that we never have to look at them. By the way, did you happen to notice the context for that “hard saying”? It was in response to the issue of adultery and was focused on the men (looks at a woman to lust for her).
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that only men have an issue in this area, but I am saying that Jesus took a VERY strong and direct approach towards sin(s) that we tend to think are private and off-limits to judgment and scrutiny – specifically sexual sins. Guys, we’re bad about this and the Internet has only made it easier for us to try satisfy these sinful desires while attempting to hide them under a cloak of anonymity and maintain a false sense of innocence. But notice that the judgment, scrutiny and strong response are personally directed at our own lives and bodies and not towards our neighbor. It was “your” eye and “your” hand that was leading you into a sinful response to your desire and lust and you are the one who must take action to destroy it in your life. How do you do this? If your Internet access is making it easy then it may be time to “cut it off” and throw it away. If a work or casual relationship is tempting, make the necessary changes. That might include changing jobs, asking to be reassigned, making intentional and hard relationship changes with the person, or any other steps necessary to maintain your integrity, Christian witness and God’s honor. These are just examples, while these may not apply to you the principles and ideas apply to all of us.
I fear you might have missed one of my main points in the last few paragraphs, so I’m going to state it more directly… Sin is not something that can be addressed culturally, legally or on someone else’s behalf. Your relationship with God cannot be achieved by someone else or through a proxy – like a pastor or a priest. They can guide you, give you direction, teach you and help you understand. But ultimately, this relationship with God is something you must desire, seek with all of your heart, and take radical steps to maintain and develop. It is possible to obey the laws of a culture and still be living a very sinful life. We can and should seek to have a moral society and laws that guide and direct us to be good, honest, caring and just people. But good, honest, caring and just people are still sinful people and sin is a very personal thing that must be addressed by the individual. It was “your eye” and “your hand” and you are the one who must recognize it in YOUR life and take the steps necessary to destroy it, at the root.
Why all this attention to bringing our physical desires, needs and actions into alignment with God’s purpose? Why don’t we just focus on the spiritual aspects of our existence and live with the reality that we will never be sinless in a physical sense? The physical is evil, the spiritual is good so let’s just ignore the physical failures and seek to be spiritually pure and holy. Because we are both physical and spiritual and we will continue to have physical bodies following the resurrection. To separate the two is called dualism and is not supported in scripture. We are both body and soul and both will be redeemed and both will be eternal. You will have a physical body for eternity but, as believers, it will be changed at the resurrection into one like Christ’s resurrection body. Paul says, “He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you.” We are going to look at this, in more detail, later in this same chapter of Romans.
Finally, I want to go back and address that opening statement in our focal passage: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” This is a very sobering statement and one that ties in closely to what we’ve been discussing. There is a contrast being drawn in those words with those are “in the Spirit.” We are either in the flesh or in the Spirit and it is not the same as being spiritually aware or sensitive. There is a growing awareness and interest in “things of the spirit” (little “s” intentional) in our culture. These things have NOTHING to do with the Holy Spirit of God and are often in direct opposition and antithetical towards God’s Spirit and His work in our world. So, I want to point out two specific things you need to understand.
First, the contrast Paul is drawing is between those who are living to satisfy their own desires, needs, goals and purpose – those are “in the flesh” and cannot please God – and those who are striving to live to satisfy God’s desires, goals and purpose in their lives and leaving their needs up to Him to satisfy – those are “in the Spirit” and are seeking and striving to please God. I hope you’ve already seen that contrast in what I’ve written, thus far. But please hear me clearly – if you are not a believer, a disciple and follower of Christ, then you CANNOT please God. Regardless of how good, moral, loving and just you live. Your desire and focus is inherently inward focused and displeasing to God. This is where lots of folks miss it, so pay attention. You cannot please God with moral goodness, acts of kindness and just living if you continue to reject His authority and Lordship over your life. It is possible to be a good, moral person while being the “god” of your own existence and in full rebellion towards the one, true God who created you.
Second, it is also possible to be aware of, interested in, seeking to understand the spiritual nature of life and still completely miss God. To be aware of and sensitive to our spiritual nature is not the same as being submissive to and obedient towards God. There are many, many spiritually minded people in life who are blind and deaf towards God and reject His Son, Jesus. Paul states this clearly, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” So, the goal is not just to be spiritually sensitive and aware but to be spiritually wise and submissive to the Spirit of Christ.
In conclusion, we cannot please God through physical means and methods. We cannot please God by being spiritually aware and sensitive. The only way to be PLEASING to God is to have His Spirit living in us through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. When His Spirit lives in us then He will be at work in us to make us aware of the sin we feed, encourage and, often, hide from Him and others. As disciples, we must be willing to acknowledge our own sin and seek to kill it at the root. By the way, if you do this you’ll stay busy enough with your own “root destruction” tasks and too busy to focus on your neighbor’s poison ivy vine. Leave that task to them, they’re the only ones capable and responsible for that job.