To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (From Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary Epistle, Romans 8:1-11 NRSV)
So the wrong way to preach this is as a moral exhortation: All of you, right now, get your minds off the flesh and back onto the Spirit! That message actually surrenders the mind to the flesh.
Well, let’s start with the fact that we are all familiar with the New Testament idea of flesh as our self-centered, aggressive and pleasure seeking animal nature. Paul captures this in a number of important verses, such as
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)
But in Romans, I think he’s warning us about a religious exercise of the flesh.
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 to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
When a sermon or other teaching shouts at us to STOP WALKING IN THE FLESH we instinctively (carnally) respond by trying harder to be good. We try to do lots of pious stuff like going to all of the church programs we can and saying darn instead of, you know, d@#n, and switching from the metal station to the Christian station on the car radio, at least when the kids are with us.
That is, we try to save ourselves by keeping all the rules.
Which, the lesson from Romans warns us, is hopeless because keeping the law is a strategy under the weakening influence of the flesh.
The antidote is setting our mind on the Spirit, which first and foremost means to receive the Spirit’s perpetual witness: Jesus himself condemned sin in the flesh AND fulfilled the just requirement of the law by suffering death on the cross.
This is not to say that putting our mind on the Spirit is to reject the law and practice a touchy-feely Christian form of amorality. Having our minds on the Spirit generates two primary actions for our practice of discipleship,
First, we are to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness. As Jesus taught of the Spirit’s work,
And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged. (John 16:8-11 NLT)
The second action is to read and/or hear Holy Scripture, which gives us the language by which the Spirit can guide us. If we spend our day memorizing the Bible as a list of laws to be carried out, we inevitably walk according to the flesh, even if we dress the flesh up in religious ceremonies, jargon and habits. Instead, our knowledge of the Bible allows the Spirit to teach and guide us in accord with God’s priorities and timing,
These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26, ESV)
The Holy Spirit is not a mere feeling (thus Paul tells us to set our minds on the Spirit), but God present within us to help us understand the Scripture He’s breathed, all of which bears witness to His righteousness fulfilled for us in Jesus and now being completed in us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Understanding that the work of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is primary and that our piety and power to do good are outward signs of God’s continued and continuous inner work in our lives is what allows us to enjoy the radical truth that launches the lesson from Romans,
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
In the flesh we are our own false gods and justly condemned; in the Spirit we share the life of Christ who is the righteous one, the beloved at the Father’s right hand.