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What Difference Does the Spirit Make?

April 2, 2023 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans

Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 8:5-9



Some of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture are John 14–17. It was the disciples’ last night with Jesus before his arrest. They don’t know what is about to happen. In fact, they are pretty clueless, but they know tensions in Jerusalem are high, and they are worried about the future. John 13 records the last supper, and John 18 records his arrest. In between either in the upper room or on the way to Gethsemane, Jesus gives one last lesson to the disciples before their world gets rocked.

Imagine how it must have hit them to hear Jesus say he was going away. “Is he going to die?” “Is he going to bail on us?” Jesus was everything to these men. They loved him, they dedicated their lives to him, and they put all their hopes in his messianic claims. Therefore, they can’t imagine life without him. His departure would leave a massive hole.

How does Jesus prepare them for that void? What will fill the Jesus-sized hole after he is gone? The answer is the indwelling Holy Spirit will take Jesus’ place. And the Spirit will not barely fill the hole; he will overrun it. Jesus said, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). That’s incredible to consider.

Jesus says that having the indwelling Spirit is better than the physical presence of Jesus. I doubt the disciples were convinced, and you may not be either. But Jesus says the indwelling Spirit is a marvelous blessing. Why is this? What difference does the Holy Spirit make in a Christian’s life? Today’s passage answers this question (read).

This passage is a contrast between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. Every verse describes the radical difference between the two. In particular, Paul describes 3 radical changes the Spirit produces. First, v. 5 says he creates…

I.  A Different Disposition (v. 5)

Before we go any further, I want to be very clear that…

The contrast is between Christians who are indwelt by the Spirit and unbelievers who are not. Notice the language Paul uses throughout the passage. Verse 5 mentions people, “who are according to the flesh” and others “who are according to the Spirit.” Verse 6 mentions “the mind set on the flesh” and “the mind set on the Spirit.” And v. 9 says “you are not…”

We might assume these statements are rehashing a couple better known verses. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). And, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).

Both verses give commands to people who are already saved. We are responsible to be “filled with the Spirit” and to “walk by the Spirit.” A believer can be full of the Spirit or not. He can walk by the flesh or by the Spirit. These states are not automatic. So, the choice is between being a healthy Christian or an unhealthy one.

But despite similar language, our text describes something different. Specifically, Romans 8 does not contrast a healthy Christian with an unhealthy one; it contrasts a believer with a nonbeliever. Verse 9 is especially clear (read). Paul is contrasting people who are indwelt by the Spirit with others who are not. And if you are not indwelt, you don’t belong to God—you are not saved. This is a crucial factor for understanding our passage.

So, before we dive into it, I want to emphasize that the NT describes several ministries of the Spirit which every Christian enjoys from the moment of regeneration and that never change. Every believer is regenerated by the Spirit, indwelt by the Spirit, baptized by the Spirit into Christ and his church, and sealed by the Spirit for eternity.

The Bible never commands the Christian to seek these ministries because they are already ours. We don’t need to fear losing them because they are not contingent on anything in us. And despite what some claim, you can’t get any more of the Holy Spirit or of these ministries. Your body is his temple, and the whole Spirit dwells within you.

Yes, some believers are full of the Spirit and others are not (Acts 6:3, 5), because they some are more submitted to God than others. That’s a big, important issue, but it is not what our text describes.

Rather, Romans 8 continues Paul’s emphasis from chapter 6 on how the new birth fundamentally reorients a person’s life. 6:16–18 said that everyone is either a slave of sin or of righteousness, and Romans 8 says the difference between two is the indwelling Spirit whom we receive at conversion.

So, as we walk through today’s passage, I hope you will give thanks that Jesus ascended to heaven and sent the Spirit to indwell us. Have you ever read the stories about Abraham, Jacob, Samson, David, and Solomon and wondered, “How could they do such horrible things?” It’s bad, and it’s hard to imagine.

The difference between them and you is that the Holy Spirit indwells you in a special way that he did not indwell them. He makes a massive difference. And our passage explains how. Returning to v. 5, notice that on the one hand…

Sin deceives the lost. Paul says, “Those who are…” Again, when you compare this statement with other descriptions of life in flesh in vv. 6, 9, it’s clear that life in the flesh is synonymous with life under the realm or authority of sin. Remember that throughout Romans, sin is not simply something we commit; rather, sin is a power which reigns over the unbeliever (5:21).

So, to be “according to the flesh” is to live under sin’s dominion or tyranny. It blinds the unbeliever to spiritual realities, it inspires rebellion against God’s authority, and the fruit is a life of vanity which ends in condemnation. Sin is a horrible master.

And v. 5 notes that it drives the lost man to “set (his) mind on the things of the flesh.” The verb Paul uses extends beyond our thoughts to include the person’s entire direction of life. It’s not just that the unbeliever thinks about sinful priorities; it’s that his values and his whole philosophy of life is wrapped up in pursuing them.

He is deceived and enslaved, and he wastes his life under the intoxicating power of sin. Satan makes life in rebellion against God look so attractive, but we must remember that how broken it is. Life outside Christ is life under a cruel, deceitful dictator who is craftily leading his followers off a cliff. With this background, we should be especially thankful that…

The Spirit directs the saved. Paul says, “Those who are according to the Spirit (set their minds on) the things of the Spirit.” Again, to be “according to the Spirit” simply means to be under the authority and control of the Spirit.

It doesn’t mean that the Spirit is a puppeteer pulling the strings and that we mindlessly submit. No, Scripture everywhere assumes that God’s authority doesn’t function that way. It’s filled with logic and reasons. It also doesn’t mean we always perfectly obey his will, because we all sin.

But it does mean that we are under a radically different authority and influence than we once were while under the dominion of sin. The Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to a glorious, clear vision of God’s majesty and his eternal priorities. And he has empowered us to pursue him in a way that was previously impossible.

And because we are under this glorious and good authority, we now “set our minds on…the things of the Spirit.” Again, this verb describes our entire direction of life. The Spirit has fundamentally transformed how I think, what I love, and where I am going.

Unlike the legalist, we aren’t simply trying to manipulate God. We love him, and we want to worship and please him. So, we love God’s will, and we want to obey it. And we can obey through the power of the Spirit.

Notice the connection between vv. 4, 5. Verse 4 says that Christ died, “So that…” We’ve talked many times about the fact that obedience, holiness, and sanctification are essential to God’s good purpose in salvation. We want to become holy. It’s not that holiness earns me eternal life, because only Christ can justify. But holiness is essential to how God is moving us toward glorification and our eternal inheritance.

And v. 5 explains why we know we can get there, “For those…” The Spirit makes a radical difference. The Spirit will enable me to make the progress I must make. He is moving me to glory.

Give thanks that Jesus sent the Spirit and for how he has and is transforming your life. It is a wonderful gift. Then believe spiritual progress is in reach. Don’t look at God’s law as an overwhelming, unattainable demand. Instead, believe that you can fulfill the requirements of the law because the Spirit has caused you to set your mind on the things of the Spirit.

Christian, you are not alone. You have the Holy Spirit. You are a temple of the Spirit, and you are spiritual. It’s true even if you don’t always feel that way. So, believe it and live it. So, the Spirit creates an entirely new disposition. Then, vv. 6–8 adds that the Holy Spirit also creates a…

II.  Different Standing (vv. 6–8)

Notice the radically different standing that the Spirit creates in v. 6.

The Contrast: Verse 6 uses the same term for “mind set” as v. 5, so Paul is still discussing two different life directions—life directed by the flesh and life directed by the Spirit. And these authorities create two radically different standings.

First, “The mind set on the flesh is death.” Death, in this context is not primarily physical death at the end of life or even eternal death in hell. Rather, the point is that the unbeliever lives under the reign of death even while he is physically alive.

Notice how Paul describes death in 5:12, 15, 21. You can see that death is not just the end; rather it hangs over the unbeliever’s entire life. Specifically, he is separated from God, he is dead in sin, and he is headed toward destruction.

Verses 7–8 will say more about this, but we can all imagine that death is a terrible place to be. Yes, many unbelievers appear successful, they prosper, and they enjoy themselves. But they are under the reign of death, and they are far from God.

But life in the Spirit produces a radically different standing. He brings “life and peace.” Of course, “life” is the opposite of death. As with death, we shouldn’t understand life as simply eternal life in heaven. Rather, the Christian is spiritually alive today.

We are right with God, we have spiritual power, and we are moving toward glory (v. 10). All of Romans 8 describes an incredible new life, new hope, and new confidence that we enjoy. We are in the truest sense alive. It is a wonderful blessing.

Not only are we alive; we enjoy peace. In this context, Paul is not primarily talking about world peace or inner peace. Rather, one of the key verses of Romans is 5:1. “Peace with God” is a right standing with him.

It’s very significant because Romans talks a lot about the hostility that stands between God and sinners. 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” And it cuts both ways. 8:7 says the natural man is “hostile toward God.” Therefore, the unbeliever is separated from the greatest good which is God himself.

But if you have been justified by faith, you have “peace with God.” God’s wrath has been removed, and the Spirit has transformed my heart from hating God to loving God.

There is no greater blessing we can enjoy than peaceful fellowship with our good Creator. We can boldly approach the throne of grace and receive mercy. We can enter God’s presence in worship. And our bodies have become the temple of the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit has provided a wonderful new standing that makes all the difference. Praise God for his incredible gift. Then vv. 7–8 drive home the great privilege we enjoy by expanding on the death we once endured.

The Explanation (vv. 7–8): These verses clearly describe the depravity of all people apart from the God’s grace. Sometimes we think that some people or maybe most people are sincerely searching after God, and they want to please him.

But God says, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God.” We are all born in rebellion against God. We want to do what we want; we don’t truly want to submit to God. That’s a problem. John Murray says regarding v. 7, “The essence of sin is to be against God; it is the contradiction of God.” The unbeliever is against God.

Yes, no unbeliever is as bad as he could be. But none of them have obeyed the gospel, and they don’t want to. They do not want to admit their sin and rest in the finished work of Christ. They want to earn righteousness on their own and do their own thing.

But no matter how hard they may try, the mind set on the flesh, “does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” Chapter 7 made this point very clear. The unbeliever may do some good things, but he will never meet the perfect standard God demands for entrance into heaven.

As a result, v. 8 concludes, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” If you are clinging to the hope that somehow, someday you will be good enough to earn God’s favor and a place in heaven, this verse should put those dreams to rest. God is very clear. As long as you are in the flesh, meaning that you lack divine help, you will never measure up.

You need divine power, divine grace. You need to be born again by letting go of all hope of getting to God on your own and instead casting yourself fully on the grace of God in Christ. If you receive Christ, the Holy Spirit will come to live inside you, and he will create all the changes this passage describes. His presence and his grace are a wonderful gift. We’d love to talk with you afterwards about how you can receive this gift for yourself.

And if you are saved, take a moment to consider the radical change the Spirit has made. Death, hostility, disobedience, and displeasure once dominated your existence. You were far from God with no hope of drawing near. But the Spirit now lives inside you, and he has brought you into a standing of life and peace. It is an awesome difference. We are so blessed to be indwelt by the Spirit. So, the Spirit has created a new disposition and a new standing. Finally, he is…

III.  A Different Authority (v. 9)

I should note that most people see the break after v. 8, not v. 9. That’s because v. 9ff switch to the second person, and Paul begins addressing Christians about what they have. That’s fair; however, v. 9 also adds one more contrast between those in the flesh and those in the Spirit. So, it fits both with what precedes and what follows. The main point of the verse is…

The Spirit creates a new realm. Again, Paul contrasts those “in the flesh” with those “in the Spirit.” And again, this is a contrast between the saved and the unsaved because what separates the two is not spiritual maturity but the presence of the Spirit. If the Holy Spirit dwells in you, you are “in the Spirit.” If the Holy Spirit does not dwell in you, you don’t belong to God. You are not saved. There’s no room in this passage for a third category of fleshly Christian, who is saved but doesn’t act like it.

That’s because v. 9 says that when you are born again, the Holy Spirit indwells you. And when he comes he moves you from being “in the flesh” to being “in the Spirit.” The idea once again is that he rescues you from the reign, authority, and control of sin and places you under the reign, authority, and control of himself. The Holy Spirit, not my sin nature is now the dominant power in my life.

Does that mean I always feel on fire, that holiness is easy, and sin is never attractive? Of course not. “Fleshly lusts (still) wage war against the soul.” The struggle will remain until I see Christ.

But the Holy Spirit is making a bigger difference than we often realize. He has transformed how you see God and relate to God through the gospel. He’s transformed your priorities. You want to please God even as you often fall short. And he is forming godliness in you, probably more than you often notice. He has done and is doing a great work if we slow down to notice.

Christian, I hope you recognize what a precious gift the Holy Spirit is. And then I want to challenge you to take full advantage of his work. God commands you, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19). He is at work to convict, to teach, and to build. We can either cultivate tenderness to his work by meditating on truth and obeying his will, or we can grow calloused to what he is doing and miss so much blessing.

If we fail here, we will surely fail to heed the warning, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30). It’s a terrible tragedy to consider the fact that since my body is a temple of the Spirit, when I sin in my body, I grieve the Holy Spirit of God.

All of us must cultivate a greater awareness of the Spirit’s presence and the grace he provides. We must rely on him, pray to him, rest in him, and listen to him. The Spirit has already made a massive difference in every Christian. How we ought to long for the full benefit of his ministry. Finally, notice the warning that concludes v. 9.

No Spirit means no relationship to God. It may be that you have always assumed you are a Christian but everything I’ve said about the Spirit’s ministry is foreign to your experience. You don’t desire godliness, and you are not growing in godliness. You call yourself a Christian but, in the words of v. 5, you “mind…the things of the flesh.” There’s no real difference between you and a lost person.

A big portion of Christianity is going to tell you that you’re saved; you just need a baptism of the Spirit, a crisis of dedication, or a 2nd work of grace. I don’t know your heart, and I can’t tell you what is there, but I know that you don’t need those things because God gives us all his grace at conversion. There’s nothing more to receive. If your heart is cold, you may need to be saved. Regardless don’t take it lightly. The Spirit will make a massive difference. Don’t be content in coldness. Get counsel and seek change.

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