In Romans 8:12 – 17 Paul continues to explain this flesh/Spirit contrast. He begins this additional explanation with the words ‘Therefore ... we have an obligation ...’ and that obligation is ‘not to the flesh’, not to live according to flesh.

There are two ways that people understand the words ‘live according to flesh’ and the verses that follow.

Because we have been conditioned to understand 'flesh' to always mean what we would call bad actions, we tend to automatically understand these words on a superficial, moralistic level, and think that they are referring to sin. (This understanding is reinforced by any translation which renders the word sarks as 'sinful nature'. But the Greek text simply says ‘flesh’.) If the words refer to sinful actions, then verses 12-14 hold us in an inescapable bondage to the law of sin and death, and we are no better off than before we received the Gospel.

On the other hand, we can understand these verses on a radically deeper plane: that they are not speaking about the bad or good things we do, but of the way in which we are relating to God. Are we relating to God on the basis of our own actions and merit, (our ‘flesh’), or are we relating to God only in Christ to whom the Spirit has united us?

To relate to God ‘according to flesh’ is to relate to God on the basis of our own performance. It is to see our acceptance with him as dependent on whether or not we have successfully maintained an acceptable level of good, moral attitudes, words and actions. For those who see themselves as having achieved this acceptable level of goodness, their 'flesh' will be very good, when judged by human standards. For those who see themselves as not having achieved this acceptable level, their 'flesh' will, in their own perception, be bad or sinful.

It is important to realize that 'flesh' can look either good or bad. Remember the Pharisee in Luke 18, who stood in the temple bragging about his own performance and expecting that on the basis of who and what he was and did he would be accepted by God. Remember Paul in Philippians 3:1-10, where he recalls all the 'good' stuff he used to depend on when he was relating to God according to flesh.

This is what Paul means here in Romans 8:12-14 when he says our obligation as those who trust in Christ is not 'to flesh, to live according to flesh' (12), that if we live 'according to flesh' we will die (13a). To live 'according to flesh' is to relate to God, to try to live in his presence, on the basis of our own supposed ‘righteousness’. It is to think that we gain, or fail to gain, the right to live with him, on the basis of our own merit.

But what about the second half of verse 13, which, in the NIV reads ‘if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live’? Doesn't it contradict this? No. Where the NIV text the word 'misdeeds’, in the Greek text the word is simply 'acts', 'deeds' or 'actions' (praxeis). There is nothing in the Greek text to indicate that these actions are only bad or wrong actions. What Paul is telling us here is to 'put to death’ is our own actions, the things that we do. He is saying 'stop giving significance to your own actions - who you are and what you do - as the means of gaining or maintaining a positive relationship with God.’

In all of us there is an automatic desire to promote ourselves, so see ourselves as meriting acceptance on the basis of who we are and what we do. So Paul says: put yourself to death. In the gospel of grace, what you do doesn't count. No matter what you've done, no matter who you are, don't give saving significance to yourself and your actions. Jesus also taught about this when he commanded us to ‘deny’ ourselves, and ‘take up your cross’. When we embrace the grace of God, we are agreeing with him – that we, of ourselves, cannot and do not keep his law, and cannot and do not please him. It is all of Christ, or it is nothing at all.

In Philippians 3:7 Paul wrote 'But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ' and in verse 8 'I consider them rubbish'.

This is how he is asking us to view our own religious credentials: to count them loss, to consider them dung, to put them to death. This is what he is saying to the Jewish Christians in Rome, who were 'bragging' about their relationship with God, who were 'bragging' about their possession of the law and who were taking confidence from their circumcision (2:17-29). As Paul has said earlier, the fact that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law outlaws and excludes boasting (3:27-28).

How can we do this? How can we overcome our pride, and conceit and independence, and stop living in God's presence according to flesh? Only 'by the Spirit' (8:13). It is only as we allow the Holy Spirit to teach us the truth of our union with Jesus Christ that we will be able to relate to God always, ever and only in Christ and according to the Spirit.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020