In the early verses of chapter 8 of the book of Romans, Paul presents a dichotomy at play that is life or death. Paul describes the choice between life in the Spirit, as discussed in previous verses, and the death that comes from choosing the flesh. Some have seen this as a discussion of material things versus spiritual things, but there is infinitely more at play in this discussion.
Main Idea of Text
Continuing from the previous section, Romans 8:5-8 discusses the paradox of the forgiven man standing before the judge. The paradox lies in the seemingly cliché choice of life or death, Spirit or flesh. Will the forgiven man continue to act as though he did nothing wrong and “live according to the flesh” (Rom. 8:5, NRSV), or will he adapt his ways to “live according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5, NRSV)?
Before moving further with this important text, there is an initial understanding that must be fully established. John Stott makes it very clear that when Paul is talking about the flesh, he is not using a traditional dichotomy for the Greco-Roman culture. Rather, “by sarx (flesh) Paul means neither the soft muscular tissue which covers our bony skeleton, nor our bodily instincts and appetites, but rather the whole of our humanness viewed as corrupt and unredeemed.”
This is not a discussion of material versus spiritual as many have read it over the years, and likely would have gravitated towards in his own culture. Dualism and Gnosticism, while popular in the Greco-Roman culture of the time, were not Christian practices, despite the early Mosaic influence on Platonic thinking. Here, Paul is remedying the situation and attempting to show flesh as a global concept rather than merely material or nature.
This being said, Paul still uses a dichotomy between the Spiritual and the fleshly things, and urges believers to “live according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5, NRSV), and to “set the mind on the Spirit [which] is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NRSV). It is also important to establish the fact that Paul is not merely comparing two things that are similar here. Paul is showing the two concepts in tandem to isolate them from one another.
Tom Westwood explains that “Paul is now indicating … the absolute incompatibility of the flesh and the Spirit. The complex being who is the Christian, must determine for himself what his line of conduct will be.” This fact becomes very clear as Paul finishes this section with the use of strong negatives towards the ability of a flesh-oriented person to follow God’s law- the pinnacle moment of description in the use of the words “hostile” (Rom. 8:7, NRSV), “does not submit” (Rom. 8:7, NRSV), and the double usage of “cannot” (Rom. 8:8, NRSV).
James R. Edwards also highlights this contrast, likening the human caught in this decision to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, characters from the famous book by Robert Louis Stevenson.  In this comparison, he “sets the Spirit in antithesis to the flesh,” and in doing so, shows the extreme differences between the incompatible forces of flesh and Spirit.
In the text, one phrase in particular is repeated around four times: “set their minds” (Rom. 8:5-8, NRSV). This phrase ultimately boils down to the word phroneo in the original Greek text. Bauer, Arndt, Danker and Gingrich explain this word to mean: “set one’s mind on, be intent on…to take someone’s side, espouse someone’s cause.” This word can also mean “way of thinking, mind (-set), in our lit. (only Romans 8) aim, aspiration, striving.”
For Olliver Greene, talk is limited in terms of the previously mentioned idea of setting your minds, but Greene instead focuses on the outcome of having a mind set on the Spirit. Romans 8:6, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NRSV). Here, while many look to the repetition of the phrase “set their minds” (Rom. 8:5-8, NRSV), Greene looks at the statement that follows the repeated phrase. The focus on life and peace, given by Greene, comes from his understanding of the Greek word for peace, which means “to bind together that which has been separated.” Peace brings God and humanity back together, but the mind must be on the Spirit for this to happen.
Olliver Greene also makes the important connection between Romans 8:8 and Hebrews 11:9. While it is uncertain as to who the author of the book of Hebrews was, the idea that you cannot submit to God without the setting your mind on the Spirit, carries into the book of Hebrews as a theme as well. Hebrews words this a little differently, and talks about this in terms of faith instead of “setting their mind” (Rom. 8:5-8, NRSV).
Main Application of Text
This text, while short and not extremely practical in nature, has an excellent application to be made. This application stems directly from this idea that Greene supported in highlighting the use of the word “peace” (Rom. 8:6, NRSV) and all that it entails. Peace in terms of this passage seems to indicate the reuniting of two parties: man and God.
In terms of today’s culture, “it is a commonplace in the modern West to regard human nature as basically good, or at least neutral;” this was not at all was Paul was arguing for here. Instead, in this chapter and also in earlier chapters, he makes it very clear that outside of the Spirit of life, humanity is an enemy of God. Two parties have been reunited in peace, and the reunion will be a social event unlike any other. By talking about the peace of God in terms of the salvation of men, Greathouse and Lyons indicate that this is an emphasis on the “social, relational quality of mind of the Spirit… in contrast to individualistic notions of life in the Spirit, where conceived along moralistic or charismatic lines.”
Chapter 8 as a portion of the larger book of Romans holds the key to understanding a crucial part of the theology of Paul. Through the use of a dichotomy, Paul expresses this important spiritual truth: Man must choose life or death. While this discussion has been spun to mean many things over the years, ultimately there a call to action for the believer in this short passage of Romans 8:5-8.
. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 222.
. Tom Westwood, Romans: A Courtroom Drama, (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers Inc., 1949), 150.
. James R. Edwards, NIBC: Romans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 204.
. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 866.
. Oliver B. Greene, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Greenville, SC: The Gospel Hour, 1974), 261.
. Ibid., 262.
. Edwards, 205.
. William M. Greathouse and George Lyons, Romans 1-8: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008) 235.
Rev. Olivia Phillips