Romans 8, False Dichotomy?

Romans 8:1-13

1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life[d] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of[e] his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

A clear-cut claim is made in these verses: all people are either living according to the Spirit OR they are living according to the flesh, that is, their “sinful desires.” This is the dichotomy. You are either A or you are B. There is no option C or an “all of the above” option.

Is the Apostle Paul’s claim true? And, if so, how are we to discern this? In order to show that a dichotomy is false all one needs to do is prove that there is some possible option C, or that it is possible to be both A and B simultaneously. I will address the possibility of there being an option C.

First of all, what does it mean to “live according to the flesh?” I think that it would be safe to say that in this context it means one whose primary concern is to make their “body” happy, that is, to be well-fed, well-clothed, comfortable, and able to indulge in sex, alcohol, etc. when one sees fit. This is in contrast to one who lives “according to the Spirit,” which seems to entail that they are living for something that is higher, and producing fruits such as ” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galations 5:22-23 ESV). [This is sounding very Platonic indeed, but I won’t elaborate on that, since that’s not what this is currently about.]

As for myself, being one of those who is, apparently, “living according to the flesh,” my main concern must be that I am well-fed, well-clothed, comfortable, and able to indulge in sex, alcohol, etc. when I see fit, right? Additionally, I should not be very concerned about things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control. It could be that these “fruits of the Spirit” have some significance to me but, according to these verses, my primary concern is the former. I live according to the flesh. That is the most important. Right?

When I chose not to be a Christian, it was because I sincerely felt that it was the “right” choice to not be one. I chose it because I felt that choosing to remain a Christian was to act in fear and pride. I remember many years ago, when I was a Christian, I thought to myself “I am NEVER going to leave the faith because of pride or feelings of insecurity (unworthiness).” It was true that most of the time when I would experience a doubt about Christianity (back then) I traced it back to a feeling of pride or insecurity (or unworthiness). There was something completely distinct when I made my final choice to leave. It was completely clear in my mind that my reason for leaving was neither pride, nor insecurity. It was genuine disbelief, and a feeling that Christianity was not the most “right” thing, that there was something better than it, which I had never thought possible.

What my decision was very pointedly NOT based on was a desire to do all those “sinful” things I couldn’t do before, like drinking or having sex or any of those other things. The decision was based PURELY on what I believed to be the right thing to do.

Of course, you don’t have to believe me. But that’s what I believe to be true about myself.

Does that disprove the dichotomy presented in Romans 8? Am I option C when the only options are A and B? Or did I misrepresent options A and B? Let me know what you think…

Next up: Religion, the scapegoat.

[Note: In order to keep a respectful dialogue, comments will be moderated before appearing on the site.]


6 thoughts on “Romans 8, False Dichotomy?

  1. If you assume the definitions of “the flesh” and “the spirit” that it appears you are, for the sake of argument assuming, then sure you may have to find an option “C”. In fact, as I think about the many, many non-believing friends that I have, I cannot help but find myself caught in the same quandary you find yourself (on the assumed definitions you provide). However, if I do not assume the “moralistic” definitions of “flesh” and “spirit” that are often preached, then I am freed to explore other possibilities such as the following:

    The non-believing friends I have that portray the fruits of the spirit in their lives are evidence of the fact that the spirit works not just in “believers” but in those who are often labeled “unbelievers”. Similarly, those who believe, myself included, often embody practices that go against the spirit, and in so doing show that being a believer does not guarantee that you are therefore living according to the spirit. It is not so much the label that is efficacious of the spirit’s presence as much as it is the openness to the work that God is doing and a lifestyle that runs with the grain of the universe that God has created.

    Now, there are some obvious questions this raises about the nature of Christian belief and to what extent adhering to a specific doctrine is what makes for “salvation” or whether you need to “pray a prayer” and so on. It would seem to me that Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 (esp. v.45) at least throws some doubt on the exact nature of “knowing Christ;” at least it throws doubt on any easy assurance of knowledge. In my mind there is still no doubt that the Christian message is a proclamation that people are called to hear and receive, yet I am not so sold on any particular methodology of this or any rigid pattern that makes one sure of one’s label (ie. “flesh” v.s. “spirit”). Thus, in regards to “in the flesh” or “in the spirit” I’m not so sure it is necessary to find an option “C”. I think Paul’s platonic dichotomy need not be done away with as, regardless of ambiguities, it still serves a heuristic purpose.


    1. Here you touch on one of the primary problems I have with Christianity (and with every truth claim in any religion or philosophy): the elusivity of correct interpretation. The fact that any and every verse/passage in scripture could be translated in a number of different ways it makes it so that whenever one person translates it in one way, another person can come along and point out that while maybe in that interpretation the other’s conclusion is correct but if it is translated some other way a completely separate conclusion is derived. This also holds true in the interpretation of every truth claim, religious or not. And this is why I’ve derived the conclusion that “People believe what they want to believe (myself included).” The only person who can find a loophole in a system of belief is the person who believes it, because the creativity of the human mind makes it so that, when an answer to a doubt is desired, it will be found within what one already believes.

      1. Oh, I guess I should have posted my reply (below) as an actual reply. Whoops. Anyhow, one more addition: I would like to challenge you on the “interpretation of scripture” bit. While I think it is quite true that there are many ambiguous passages throughout scripture and that there are also many political, social, and economic realities influencing the history of translation and interpretation, I would not be so quick to dismiss so willy-nilly the credibility of MUCH of what has been translated and exegeted from the ancient scriptures throughout history. Even my cursory knowledge of translation, exegesis, and hermeneutics gives me confidence that scripture is not one giant collection of ambiguous material that can simply be changed and re-interpreted wholesale and at a whim.

      2. Fair enough. There are some things within the Bible that are much more clear than others. However, there are more than just a few areas where ambiguity serves to allow about anyone to derive what they like from a select passage in scripture. I don’t think that there is enough value given to understanding the Bible within its historical context in Christian circles. Sometimes a translation of a particular passage is a nice theme for a sermon and everyone learns a nice lesson…but it’s just not what the passage is saying and can end up causing a lot of problems.

  2. I am simply inclined to agree with you, even while holding fast to faith in the God revealed in Jesus. There is a part of me that is tempted to offer some kind of critical departure from your argument pertaining to the seeming “groundlessness” of all belief (a task I may yet venture into when I have the time to think through it rigorously and thoughtfully) but for now I am comfortable with saying that ultimately I do not believe my faith to be ultimately defensible on the basis of some knockdown argument. Because of this I believe Christianity to be more so a rhetoric (in the positive sense) and aesthetics that is meant to persuade, not convince in any kind of Cartesian sense.

    1. I would love to be offered a critical departure from my skeptical position! To me it just seems like the only thing that makes sense, but that obviously could change. One of my classes is directly addressing the topic of skepticism (and modern approaches to its defeat) and each lecture is somewhat nerve-racking because I know that if an argument defeating skepticism convinces me I will have to reinvent my world-view, again. It’s intense :p

      So what happens if I am not persuaded by the rhetoric of Christianity or find appeal in its aesthetic? Am I wrong? Or did I just not “get it?”

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