“For the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not subject itself to the things of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).
It’s not that believers and unbelievers think in different ways. Rather, it’s that spiritually-minded Christians and carnally-minded church members (Christians? Let’s assume they are, but it’s hard to know) think and act and value in opposite ways.
Let the church take notice.
In an article on sacrificial giving, I made a statement that attracted some attention: Those who are in the flesh resent being told they are in the flesh.
More than one reader reacted to that in anger. (Thus proving the point, some might conclude.)
God’s shepherds (i.e., pastors of all varieties) can appreciate the strong division Scripture makes between being spiritually minded and carnally minded. The Lord’s Word does not allow a blurring of that line, but draws a stark contrast between the two. “The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
The reality of the dichotomy, the reasons for it, and the results that follow are vastly different. (And no, that is not a sermon outline, although it might work. One hopes, however, that every preacher knows “alliteration doth not a sermon make.”)
Two passages of Scripture deal with this division, the opposing operations of “the mind set on the spirit” and “the mind set on the flesh.” Romans 8 (here) and also I Corinthians chapters 2 and 3.
The question always arises: We know the spiritually-minded are redeemed Christ-followers. They are saved. But are the carnally-minded saved? Answer: They may be either. Unsaved people are, of course, “in the flesh” since they have not been “born of the Spirit.” However, immature believers may look and act, walk and think, “in the flesh” also, thus confusing the issue. This is one reason we preachers must be careful in assuming everyone who does not act like Christ is lost and needs to “get saved.” They could simply be immature, untaught, and in need of a friend in Christ.
Our primary concern here is with church members who are carnal. They may look just like lost people, but based on I Corinthians 3:1-4, we conclude they are immature believers who are not walking or thinking “in the Spirit.”
When a firefighter fresh on the scene prepares to enter a burning building, the colleague who has just come from the fire shouts out instructions and warnings based on what he has learned: “Watch out for that stairway–it’s about to fall. The roof is next to come. Stay to your left. The children’s room is just ahead. If the heat is too intense, get out of there.” That sort of thing.
To the Lord’s faithful worker, Romans 8 was given. The caution early in the chapter about the competition between the flesh and the spirit are essential truths for God’s people. A quick scan of verses 4 through 9….
Verse 4 — God’s law will not be fulfilled by walking in the flesh but walking according to the Spirit. (Something inside sinful man wants to believe otherwise, that all that counts is sitting in church an hour a week, giving some money, uttering a few memorized prayers. Not even close.)
Verse 5 — Those who live according to the flesh (“the carnally minded”) are identified by the way they “set their mind” on the things of the flesh. And what might those things be? Answer: The things which are seen (see 2 Corinthians 4:18). Tangible things. That might include the money we have in the bank, the vote for/against a situation, and all the obstacles preventing a certain course of action. The invisible things–these would include faith, love, hope, and the Holy Spirit Himself!–are of lesser value to such a one.
Verse 5 — Those who live according to the Spirit are identified by the way they “set their mind” on the things of the Spirit. And what are the “things of the Spirit”? Start with God the Father Himself (He is Spirit, according to John 4:24), and then go to love, faith, hope, humility, service, and such. Spirit-filled Christ-followers place a high value on these; the fleshly among us not so much.
Verse 6 — The road marked “carnal” leads to a dead end, to death. The path marked “spirit” leads to life and peace. No contrast could be more stark. Wise people choose a path by where it leads; the lost will take anything available.
Verse 7 — The carnal mind hates God. It is hostile to Him. It refuses to yield to His instruction, which it may see as foolish, irrelevant, outdated, not applicable to this situation, and impractical. No church should ever put a carnal-minded person in a place of leadership. Do so and you are asking for big trouble.
Verse 8 — The carnally minded, in short, cannot please God. No amount of striving “according to the flesh” with good works and impressive projects will win the favor of the Father. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). “The just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11).
Verse 9 — Paul then says, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.” That’s the question, whether the Lord’s Spirit lives in us. And lest any one split hairs and insist that a person might have Jesus but not the Spirit, or the contrary, Paul says, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin but the spirit is alive because of righteousness” (v. 10). Plain enough? It is for me.
All right. Let’s get to it. Here are some statements we believe to be bankable about the fleshly among us.
Those who are in the flesh are going to resent…
1) Being told they are in the flesh.
They are high in their own estimation and “entitled.” When leaders are chosen–deacons, chairs of this committee or members of that board–they often feel slighted if passed over. (Church member: Never ever place someone in a position of leadership who would feel angry if they were not chosen. They do not qualify.)
2) Being asked to act in the Spirit.
Tithe when they cannot see how their bills will be paid? Not hardly. Witness to a neighbor who is an angry drunk? Not in this lifetime. Follow a pastor whom they do not like? You’re asking too much. They do not know how to submit, and thinking carnally, they see doing so as caving in to the enemy and “violating who I am.”
3) Being called upon to do anything by faith. “Unreasonable!”
A banker who was our church treasurer–through no decision of mine!–admitted that when I spoke of the church doing things by faith, he interpreted that as the pastor having his head in the clouds. Such is the carnal mind.
4) Being called on to do something difficult now with a delayed payoff out in the future.
Our Lord instructed His people to take care of the poor and needy among us. Do this, He said, and “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14). The carnal-minded will have none of that. Some will criticize the pastor for a revival that cost big bucks but brought in no new members. A waste, they say. They place no value on seed-sowing, on encouragement, on edifying in the faith.
5) Being told the unvarnished truth. They like the truth in broad generalities and easy doses.
The carnal do not mind sin being preached to so long as the preacher doesn’t get too specific, but if you call out the very infractions of which they are guilty, they react in anger.
6) Being reminded of eternity, of judgment, and of hell.
No one was more ‘in the flesh” than the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, which perhaps prompted so many of His warnings of hell. These people, of course, were enraged. If anyone was entitled to Heaven, it was they. I think of a gospel song from my childhood, “If anyone makes it, precious Lord, then surely I will.” The hubris of that is staggering. The quickest way out of town is for the pastor to tell these people they stand in danger of hell fire.
7) Being asked to submit to spiritual authority.
The carnal mind will insist he is glad to submit to the pastor “as long as he’s in the right. But if I think he’s wrong, it would be sinful for me to follow him.” Submission has no meaning for for such a one. (See Ephesians 5:21 and Hebrews 13:17). Submission means to give in even when you think you are right. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless concept. (Do not miss this. To say, “I will submit to you when I agree with you,” is to say “I will accompany you if I was already going that way.” And that is pointless. Submission is only submission when we humble ourselves, give up something we wanted, and agree to “do it your way.” That is the key to Christian unity, and the very reason some churches have none. Carnal leaders do not know how to submit and cannot model it for others.)
The carnal guy reasons, “That preacher thinks because he has a seminary education, he ought to lord it over us. I was running a business when he was still in grade school.”
It is not the pastor’s education that makes him the overseer of the church, but the call of God upon his life (see Acts 20:28). It’s the Lord’s church and He chooses whom He pleases to put in leadership.
8) The carnal resent hearing from Christians who desire a deeper walk and greater intimacy with Christ. The contrast with their own emptiness pains them and they strike back.
“Goody two-shoes!” they sometimes say of those hungering a deeper walk. “They think they’re so much more spiritual just because they pray an hour a day.”
9) They resent being told their good works are inadequate to get them to Heaven.
It truly is offensive to the carnal to learn that the money they have contributed, the times they have helped the needy, all those years of church attendance, has earned them absolutely nothing when they stand before God. The concept of grace eludes them.
10) Being told they are being disobedient.
To the carnal, preachers are expected to soften their preaching and not get too specific about sins. Generalities are acceptable, but the pastor is never to mention merchants who sell liquor, landlords who rent slums, or business owners who cut corners on safety regulations, when those big shots sit among the congregation. Doing so is the quickest way out of town for the preacher.
Pray for the pastor….
Pity the pastor sentenced to lead a church with a high concentration of carnal leaders. They will make his life miserable if he preaches the Word and calls the church to prayer and obedience.
My observation is the Lord sends only the best and strongest to such churches. If you are in one, friend, take it as the ultimate compliment from the Savior.
Carnal leaders want to do nothing by faith, everything for appearance sake, and anything that will make them look good in the eyes of outsiders and other churches.
Carnal church members resent demands being made on their personal and private life.
One of their favorite phrases is “Don’t judge me; you don’t know my heart.” My friend Iris, a pastor’s widow, suggested this and added, “Guess what–your actions lay your heart open for all the world to see!”
Most spiritually minded believers reading this article will realize something that needs to be admitted here: It’s possible for the mature to act immaturely. It’s possible for the spiritual to act carnally at times. Not everyone gets it right all the time.
Church members must stay on guard in choosing leaders and insist that only the spiritually minded rise to prominence. That is not to say that spirituality trumps knowledge about finances or administration or personnel, or that no consideration should be given to one’s experience and competence in these matters. Pastor Adrian Rogers said to me once, “All things considered, I’d prefer that the pilot of my plane also know Jesus. But given a choice between a born-again believer who cannot fly and an unbeliever who knows how to get this aircraft off the ground and to my destination, I’ll take the lost guy every time!”
May the Lord guide His church. May His church seek His will and settle for nothing less.
Thank you for this insightful article. I just want to comment on the issue of submission as defined by you. The case of Daniel and Shedrack, Meshack and Abednego clearly show that godly definition of submission is to the extent of the leader’s position being in alignment with the “will/position of God on the issue” as revealed in the scripture