Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Living By the Spirit

Romans 8:1-11

 The crux of this text is the contrast of two words:  Flesh and Spirit, in the Greek, SARX and PNEUMA.  The translators of the New Living Translation I read this morning render SARX, flesh, as “sinful nature.”  We’ll talk about whether or not that is really the best translation.  

 Now these are not two parts of a human being.  The idea that human beings consist of a high and noble spirit and a low and cravenly flesh comes from Neo-Platonic philosophy, a Greek school of thought, not Scripture.  That idea of two warring parts of the human being came into Christian theology through Gnosticism, which was a religious philosophy built on Neo-Platonism.  It’s not what the Scriptures teach us about human beings.  In the New Testament, the Greek word for the non-physical part of human beings is the word PSUCHE, from which we get the word psychology, the study of the mind.  It could also be translated as soul. 

 This passage is not about a contrast between two parts of human nature.  Rather, it’s about the contrast between two ways of living.  

 SARX meant flesh.  It could be used just literally to refer to the stuff we’re made of.  And it’s not a bad thing either.  That’s why the translation as “sinful nature” is probably not the best translation.  Flesh isn’t bad.  After all, Christ became flesh.  

 But flesh, especially when it’s used to refer to human beings, did have another connotation to it.  Flesh also referred to our mortality, our weakness.  And often that included our moral weakness, our susceptibility to sin.  So “sinful nature” also isn’t the worst translation.  I guess there is no perfect translation, as is often the case in going from one language to another.

 To live by the flesh is to live a self-oriented life, to base your life on your own desires and abilities.  It is to live according to a human point of view, to the exclusion of God’s presence and power.  To live by the flesh is to depend on your own power, strength, and resources.  

 To live by the flesh is to seek to please God according to the Law.  The weakness of the Law, as Paul talks about in Romans 7, is that it can diagnose the disease, it can reveal our sin, but it can’t provide the cure.  It can show us how we sin, but it can’t stop us from sinning.  

 On the other hand, PNEUMA, Spirit, is the Spirit of the God, the Holy Spirit.  In the New Testament, the word spirit seldom refers to human beings.  It can be used of evil spirits.  It can be used of angels.  It can be used of the Holy Spirit.  But it doesn’t refer to human beings.  The Spirit is the presence and the power of God.  The Spirit gives life.   

 A person who lives by the Spirit depends on the grace and power of God, not on their own resources.  The contrast in this text is between two ways of living:  Depending on ourselves or depending on God.

 A person can only be filled with the Holy Spirit through the death of Christ.  Christ died to meet the just requirements of the Law, to satisfy the Law.  We are sinners, and sin must be punished.  A just and holy God must punish sin.  Why?  Because if he doesn’t, then he is not just and holy.  But God has laid the punishment of our sins on Christ, and through Christ we are purified of sin.  And as purified people, we receive the Holy Spirit. 

 A life lived according to the flesh will always lead to frustration and defeat.  We can’t overcome sin on our own because we are flesh, we are weak, we are susceptible to sin.  But a life lived according to the Spirit will yield victory.  Not immediately, but ultimately.  We can only keep a Law that is written on our hearts by God’s Spirit.  We heard earlier from the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel also records the promise of God about the New Covenant in chapter 36:  “I will give you a new heart.  I will take out your stony and stubborn heart and give you a tender and responsive heart.  I will put my Spirit in you so that you will obey my decrees.”  

 As Christians, we are not different from other people because we are morally superior.  Certainly, we should be moral, but that is not the essential difference between a Christian and a non-Christian.  The difference is we have a superior power at work in us, the Spirit of God, and that superior power will ultimately be victorious over sin.

 There was a great theologian of the early Church named Augustine.  He was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.  He wrote that the condition of sinful humanity, apart from Christ, is that we are “not able not to sin.”  Sin is unavoidable for human beings apart from Christ, because we are flesh; we are weak.  But in Christ, through the Spirit, we are “able not to sin,” empowered to break free from sin’s power through the Holy Spirit.

 There are two ways of life contrasted in this passage.  They are going in opposite directions.  The way of flesh is hostile to God.  It cannot please God.  And it finally leads to death.  On the other hand, the way of the Spirit yields life and peace.  

 The objection someone might offer is “If the life of the Spirit yields life and peace, then why do Christians still die?”  

 We die because we are still part of the human situation.  Paul explores this in Romans chapter 5.  We are all born as children of Adam.  And in Adam, all sin.  The Hebrew people had a much stronger concept of corporate solidarity, belonging to a group, than we do.  We like to think in individualistic terms:  “I am my own person,” and such.  But in Hebrew thought, corporate identity was more important.  “We are the children of Abraham,” they would say.  True, but ultimately, all human beings are children of Adam, born into sin, and with a tendency to sin from birth.  And as such, we share in the fate of Adam; we die.  

 But through Christ, we can gain a new identity:  Children of God.  And just as through our natural birth we were involved in Adam’s sin, through the new birth, we can be involved in Christ’s righteousness.  Our body will still die because of sin, but the Spirit is life and the Spirit gives life.  Therefore, we die, but we die only to rise again because we can’t stay dead if we are joined to the One who died and rose again.  Ultimately, as Paul says, “We are set free from the power of sin that leads to death” if we live by the Spirit.  

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