A Commentary by John Stott
Paul has asserted that the only people in whom the law’s righteous requirement can be fulfilled are those who live not *kata sarka* (according to flesh but *kata pneuma* according to spirit or better the Spirit), that is, those who follow the promptings and surrender to the control of the Spirit rather than the flesh. It is this antithesis between flesh and Spirit which Paul now develops in verses 5-8. Implicitly or explicitly, it recurs in every verse. Paul’s purpose is to explain why obedience to the law is possible only to those who walk according to the Spirit.
We begin with some definitions. By *sarx* (flesh) Paul means neither the soft muscular tissue which covers our bony skeleton, nor our bodily instincts or appetites, but rather the whole of our humanness viewed as corrupt and unredeemed, ‘our fallen, ego-centric human nature’, or more briefly ‘the sin dominated self’. By *pneuma* (spirit) in this passage Paul means not the higher aspect of our humanness viewed as ‘spiritual’ (although in verse 16 he will refer to our human spirit), but rather the personal Holy Spirit himself who now not only regenerates but also indwells the people of God. This tension between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ is reminiscent of Galatians 5:16-26, where they are in irreconcilable conflict with each other. Here Paul concentrates on the ‘mind’, or (as we would say) ‘mindset’, of those who are characterized by either *sarx* or *pneuma*.
First, our mindset expresses our basic nature as Christians or non-Christians. On the one hand, there are *those who live according to the sinful nature*. They are not now those who ‘walk’ according to it (4, literally) but those who simply ‘are’ like this (5, literally). These people *have their minds set on what that nature desires*, whereas *those who live in accordance with the Spirit* (literally, ‘those according to the Spirit’ – there is no verb) *have their minds set on what the Spirit desires* (5). The meaning surely is not that people are like this because they think like this, although that is partly true, but that they think like this because they are like this. The expressions are descriptive. In both cases their nature determines their mindset. Moreover, since the flesh is our twisted human nature, its desires are all those things which pander to our ungodly self-centredness. Since the Spirit is the Holy Spirit himself, however, his desires are all those things which please him, who loves above all else to glorify Christ, that is, to show Christ to us and form Christ in us.
Now to ‘set the mind’ (*phroneo*) on the desires of *sarx* or *Pneuma* is to make them the ‘absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection and purpose’. It is a question of what preoccupies us, of the ambitions which drive us and the concerns which engross us, of how we spend our time and our energies, of what we concentrate on and give ourselves up to. All this is determined by who we are, whether we are still ‘in the flesh’ or are now by new birth ‘in the Spirit’
Secondly, our mindset has eternal consequences, *The mind of sinful man* (literally, ‘of the flesh’) *is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit* (literally, ‘of the Spirit’) *is life and peace* (6). That is, the mindset of flesh dominated people is already one of spiritual death and leads inevitably to eternal death, for it alienates them from God and renders fellowship with him impossible in either this world or the next. The mindset of Spirit-dominated people, however, entails life and peace. On the one hand they are ‘alive to God’ (6:11), alert to spiritual realities, and thirsty for God like nomads in the desert (Ps. 63:1), like deer panting for streams (Ps. 42:1). On the other hand, they have peace with God (5;1), peace with their neighbour (12:15), and peace within, enjoying an inner integration or harmony. We would surely pursue holiness with greater eagerness if we were convinced that it is the way of life and peace.
Thirdly, our mindset concerns our fundamental attitude to God. The reason the mind of the flesh is death is that it *is hostile to God*, cherishing a deep-seated animosity against him. It is antagonistic to his name, kingdom and will, to his day, his people and his word, to his Son, his Spirit and his glory. In particular, Paul singles out his moral standards. In contrast to the regenerate who ‘delight’ in God’s law (7:22), the unregenerate mind *does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so* (7), which explains why those who live according to the flesh cannot fulfil the law’s righteous requirement (4). Finally, *those* who are *controlled by the sinful nature (sarx)*, literally those who are ‘in flesh’ (*en sarki*) or unregenerate, lacking the Spirit of God, *cannot please God* (8). They *cannot* please him (8) because they *cannot* submit to his law(7), whereas, it is implied, those who are in the Spirit set themselves to please him in everything, even to do so ‘more and more’ (1 Thess. 4;1).
To sum up, here are two categories of people (the unregenerate who are ‘in the flesh’ and the regenerate who are ‘in the Spirit’), who have two perspectives or mindsets (‘the mind of the flesh’ and ‘the mind of the Spirit’), which lead to two patterns of conduct (living according to the flesh or the Spirit), and result in two spiritual states (death or life, enmity or peace). Thus our mind, where we set it and how we occupy it, plays a key role in both our present conduct and our final destiny.