Living According to the Spirit Leads to a New Quality of Life (Romans 8:1–14)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Believers are free from the law, but walking in newness of life is based on a firm moral structure (hence, “the law of the Spirit,” Rom. 8:2). Paul calls this moral structure “living according to the Spirit” or “setting our minds on the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). Both terms refer to the process of moral reasoning that guides us as we walk in newness of life.

This kind of moral compass does not work by listing specific acts that are right or wrong. Instead it consists of following the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that has freed believers “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1–2). The words life and death are the keys. As discussed earlier in Romans 6, Paul understands “sin,” “death,” and the “flesh” as spiritual forces in the world that lead people to act in ways that are con­trary to God’s will and produce chaos, despair, conflict, and destruction in their lives and in their communities. By contrast, living according to the Spirit means doing whatever brings life instead of death. “To set the mind on the flesh [our old patterns of judgment] is death but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Setting the mind on the Spirit means looking for whatever will bring more life to each situation.

For example, the Jewish law taught that “you shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). But living according to the Spirit goes far beyond not lit­erally murdering anyone. It actively seeks opportunities to bring better life to people. It can mean cleaning a hotel room so that guests remain healthy. It can mean clearing the ice from a neighbor’s sidewalk (or pave­ment) so pedestrians can walk safely. It can mean studying for years to earn a Ph.D. in order to develop new treatments for cancer.

Another way to put it is that living according to the Spirit means living a new quality of life in Christ. This comes from setting aside our judgments of what another person deserves and seeking instead what would bring them a better quality of life, deserved or not. When making assignments, a manager could assign a task that stretches subordinates’ abilities, rather than limiting them to what they are already capable of, then inviting them to check in every day for guidance. When asked to lend a replacement tool, a skilled tradesperson could instead show a junior worker a new technique that will prevent breaking the tool the next time around. When asked “Why did our dog die?” a parent could ask a child “Are you afraid someone you love might die?” instead of only explaining the pet’s immediate cause of death. In each of these situa­tions, the moral goal is to bring a better quality of life to the other person, rather than to fulfill a demand of the law.

Bringing life, rather than fulfilling the law, is the moral compass of those who are being saved by God’s grace. We are free to live according to the Spirit rather than to enslave ourselves to the law because “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

A Habit of Discrimination

As a young man, I worked in a farm supply warehouse in southern Delaware. After a while I realized that all the white workers—including me, the new hire—had the clean, easy job of loading and unloading farm supplies. All the black workers were assigned to backbreaking work in the hot dust-choked seed-bagging room. It didn’t seem like management or the white workers were particularly racist. It was just a fact of life that nobody talked about; black people got the worst jobs. Nobody even seemed to think about it, and after a while I didn’t either.

William Messenger, as told to the TOW Project, January 10, 2014

Paul’s inclusion of “peace” as an aspect of setting our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 13:6, as above) points out the social aspects of living according to the Spirit because peace is a social phenomenon.[5] When we follow Christ, we try to bring a new quality of life to our society, not just to ourselves. This means paying attention to the social conditions that diminish life at work and elsewhere. We do what we can to make life better for people we work among. At the same time, we work to bring justice/righteousness to the social systems that shape the conditions of work and workers.

Christians can be a positive force for improvement—even survival—if we can help our organizations set their minds on the need for a new quality of life. We probably can’t change our organizations much on our own. But if we can build relationships with others, earn people’s trust, listen to the people nobody else listens to, we may help the organization break out of its ruts. Plus, we bring the secret ingredient—our faith that God’s grace can use us to bring life to even the deadest situation.

Conversely, if we do not set our minds on the Spirit at work, we can be arrogant and destructive, whether in our relationships with fellow workers, competitors, clients, or others. Setting our minds on the Spirit requires constantly evaluating the consequences or fruit of our work, always asking whether our work enhances the quality of life for other people. If we are honest in our assessments, no doubt it also requires daily repentance and the grace to change.