Tests of Assurance: Where is Your Focus?

A sermon on Romans 8:4-8 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, Easter Sunday, 4/20/03

How do you know you are saved?

This morning we have celebrated Jesus’ victory over sin, as marked by His resurrection. The front of our bulletin proclaims “Jesus was delivered over because of our transgressions, and raised because of our justification.”

He was delivered over and crucified because of OUR transgressions – the sins of all believers from all time were put on him.

But then He was raised BECAUSE OF our justification. God could not have raised Jesus from the dead unless the penalty He paid was sufficient to cover all those sins. The resurrection itself is proof that the sins of all those in Christ are covered – the penalty is paid in full. The very fact of resurrection is proof that there is no more penalty; we are free!

This is what we looked at last week when examining Romans 8:1-4.

So we are free!

Or are we?

Does this hold for YOU?

It holds ONLY if your are in Christ Jesus. How do you know?

Suppose two friends come to you. Like the characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, these friends have rather descriptive names:  Guilt-ridden and Not-worry. Guilt-ridden cries out, “I committed this terrible sin yesterday! I don’t know if I’m saved!” Not-worry replies, “Oh, don’t worry about that! Didn’t you walk the aisle at the Billy Graham Crusade? Didn’t you pray the sinner’s prayer? Then you are saved! Once saved, always saved! Sin no longer matters! Jesus is raised from the dead! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! Never worry about sin!”

What do you say? Should guilt-ridden be concerned if he falls into sin? Is Not-Worry right to point him back to a physical act he committed – walking down the aisle?

More personally: When YOU sin, how should you respond? Is there ever a point where sin should cause you to question whether or not you are saved?

This is exactly the question Paul addresses at the end of Romans 7 and the first section of Romans 8. When a professed believer falls into sin, should he question his salvation? And we’ll see that Paul does not act like Not-Worry, telling us to trust in a one-time experience in our past. But nor does he act like Guilt-Ridden, and tell us to be concerned about our salvation after every sin. How, then, does he answer the question?

His answer in this chapter is twofold:

1) Verses 9, 39, and many others help us to see that NOTHING can separate those in Christ Jesus from His love. Nothing external – such as suffering inflicted on us. Nothing internal – such as our own sinfulness.

2) But verse 13 tell us: If you are living according to the flesh, you will die an eternal death.

Thus, individual sins should not cause us to question our salvation. Guilt-ridden is wrong. On the other hand, Not-Worry is wrong too. Sin is serious. And if our sinfulness begins to reveal a pattern of living according to the flesh, we are right to question whether or not we are in Christ at all.

So how do we know if we are in Christ? In verses 9-13, Paul gives us three tests to apply, three questions to raise. He gives a few more later in this chapter, and 1 John – written to answer the same question – gives the answers in a somewhat different way. But these verses suggest the following questions:

Remember where are in the book of Romans:

In chapter 1, Paul shows that the Gentiles are under sin. Chapter 2 emphasizes that Jews too are under sin. Chapters 3 to 5 provide God’s answer to the sin problem: God justifies the ungodly by faith apart from any works on their part. In chapter 6, Paul addresses a logical question: If we are justified by faith apart from works, does my sin even matter? Paul says, Yes, it does, for you are united with Christ in His life and resurrection. In chapter 7, Paul presents the case of the professing believer who does not want to sin put finds himself sinning. Is there any hope for such a person. “Who will rescue me from the body of this death?” Romans 7:25-8:4a says, “There is no condemnation for anyone who is in Christ Jesus! “He who sins dies” no longer holds if the Spirit is in you! The righteous requirement of law is fulfilled in you!

Up to this point, Paul is making a great statement of justification by faith, the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross as evidenced by the resurrection. He says, “If you are in Christ Jesus, you are saved.” And who is in Christ Jesus? Those who believe, those who have faith.

But this brings is to the second half of verse 4. Paul identifies those who are in Christ Jesus with “Those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Do you see why that causes a problem? Paul here switches from God’s objective work – “The righteous requirement of the law was fulfilled in us” – to a statement about the way we live – “those who walk according to the Spirit.” He seems to be replacing a statement about something that comes by faith – our position in Christ – with a statement about something that we do.

Upon seeing this, the professing believer who finds himself sinning might respond, “Uhhh, Paul, you didn’t help me. Didn’t you hear me? I understood from Romans 6 that “The wages of sin is death”. I am sinning. I find myself sinning, though I hate it. How can you tell me on the one hand, “There is therefore now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and at the same time say, “only those who walk according to the Spirit are in Christ Jesus.”

Or, more formally:  Isn’t this a system of works-righteousness through the back door? Isn’t Paul making a legal claim on us? Instead of saying, “Keep the Law and you will live” he says. “Walk according to the Spirit and you will live.”

Paul is NOT making a legal claim on us. Our justification – God declaring us righteous in His eyes – does not depend on our walking according to the Spirit. However, Paul does says, “Everyone who is in Christ Jesus WILL WALK ACCORDING TO THE SPIRIT. This is not a prerequisite for salvation – but it is the INEVITABLE RESULT of salvation. So if you are not walking according to the Spirit, you may never have been saved.”

In his book-long exposition of Romans 8:13, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen says:

There is such a connection between a continuance in sin and eternal destruction, that though God does resolve to deliver some from a continuance in sin that they may not be destroyed, yet he will deliver none from destruction that continue in sin; so that whilst anyone lies under an abiding power of sin, the threats of destruction and everlasting separation from God are to be held out to him.

This brings us to the three questions mentioned above. Today we will examine the first; What is your mind set upon? We’ll break this question down into several parts:

What is the focus of your mind?

What is result of focusing on this world?

Focusing on this world IS DEATH

Focusing on this world is HATRED TO GOD

What is the result of focusing on the Spirit

            Life and peace

What is focus of your mind?

Look at verses 5 to 8 again with me:

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.  6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,  7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Paul instructs us not to set our minds on things of the flesh, instead setting them on the things of the Spirit. What does he mean?

Matthew 16:21-22, Colossians 3:2, and Philppians 3:19 are helpful here:

 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."

2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.

19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

All of these verses talk about our mindset. We can set our minds on “earthly things”, “things of man”, or, alternatively, on “things above,” “things of God.”

Consider in particular Peter’s mindset in Matthew 16. His mind is set upon Jesus’ role as king – but he is thinking of this role in an earthly sense. Now, this is not completely wrongheaded. Jesus will return as an earthly king to destroy all His enemies, as shown so powerfully in Revelation 19. Peter could look at the Old Testament Scriptures and read prophecies about the Messiah’s reign – and he has just said that Jesus is that Messiah! Nevertheless, Jesus says Peter is setting his mind on the “things of man.” He is focusing his mind on the great earthly benefits – not least to himself – of the reign of Jesus, and not seeing the spiritual dimension of that reign, the spiritual enemies that must be conquered by the very suffering and death that Peter does not want Him to discuss.

So the setting our minds on the things of the flesh does not necessarily mean we are focusing on sinful pleasures. The question is: are we focused on God and His plan and His glory, or are we focused on the pleasures that come in this world and the benefits that come from God’s gifts?

This is one reason we at Desiring God Community Church always ask, “Will this bring the greatest glory to God” rather than “How can we build bigger church?” or even “How can we meet the needs of the largest number of people”. We try hard to keep our focus on the things of God, so that our ministry to people is God-glorifying.

What is result of focusing on this world?

Let’s turn now to the second part of today’s questions: What is the result of focusing on this world? Verse 6 tells us that  setting the mind on the flesh IS ITSELF DEATH – the mind set of is hostile to God, is hatred to God, is the enemy of God.  

Think again of the interaction between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16. Note Jesus’ response to Peter: “Get behind me Satan!” At that moment, Peter is acting as the enemy of God!

Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16 and Paul’s statements here are very strong – to our ears, they sound harsh. Why does Paul say  that our mindset itself  - just the way we think, when we’re not even hurting each other - is death, or hatred towards God?

Paul says this because life comes from God. True life comes from Him alone. So in opposing God you are opposing the source of all life.

Remember what Jesus prays the night He is betrayed? We read this at our Good Friday service, John 17:3: “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

And do you remember the dispute between Jesus and the Sadducees about whether or not there is a resurrection from the dead?

26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong."

God gives life to those who are His. If God is the God of Jacob, then Jacob must be alive – for God is a life-giving God!

Therefore, to oppose God is to be on the side of death. For God is the only source of life.

But you might ask, “OK, I see that. But why is setting the mind on the things of the flesh, focusing on this world, the  equivalent of opposing God?” To answer this, let’s look again at verses 6 to 8:

6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,  7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

What does “hostile” mean? In its different forms, this Greek word is translated “hostility, hatred, enmity, enemy.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used in Genesis 3:15 of Satan: “I will put ENMITY between your seed and her seed.” It is also used in two different forms in James 4:3-4, which shed some light on Romans 8:

3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.  4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Once again, focus! If we focus on world and its friendship – even though we are not explicitly hating God – in effect that wrong focus makes you His enemy. Indifference to God equals hating Him.

Why is our indifference to God, our preferring things of this world to God – why is that so offensive to Him? Isn’t it just a little wrong emphasis on our part?

Let me elaborate on one of John Piper’s images to help you see this point.

Suppose you are at the Grand Canyon with a trowel in your hand. Fifteen feet away is the mile-deep, miles-wide, canyon: the sun is setting, the colors are magnificent, the air is clear. Your friends are overcome as they soak in the majesty of the sight. But you have your back to the canyon, and are busy digging in the dirt. You call out, “Hey, guys, look at my ditch! Isn’t this great? With my trowel I’ve dug a super ditch!” Your friends reply, “What are you looking at? Come here, look at a real ditch! This view is magnificent!” You respond, “Oh, yeah, that’s ok. I’ll look at it Christmas and Easter. But meanwhile, look at this great ditch I’ve dug!”

That is the way many of us treat God. We are so impressed with our creations, or the creations of other men, or other men themselves, that we turn our eyes away from the majesty of God. And by doing that, we are exalting whatever we are looking at and belittling God.

God does not want to be 2nd place in your affections. He does not want your leftover time and leftover attention – AFTER you’ve spent the best of your time and energy on your school, your career, your entertainment, your family. God wants first place – indeed, He must have first place – or you are not His at all.

Jesus applies this directly to several specific cases. Consider family and money:

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

To set our minds on the things of flesh is to BELITTLE God. And we were created to GLORIFY GOD. Setting our minds on the things of the flesh is to FIND SATISFACTION IN SOMETHING OTHER THAN GOD. And we were created to glorify God by finding satisfaction and joy in Him.

And did you note how Paul says the mind set on the flesh does not subject itself to God’s law – and, indeed, that it is not able to do so? Do you see the link? What commands summarize all the Law? We were created to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. When we set our mind on the things of the flesh, we are LOVING OTHER THINGS MORE THAN GOD. So when Paul says in verse 8 that those with a mind set on the flesh CANNOT please God, when he says they CANNOT subject selves to the law in verse 7 – it is a LOGICAL impossibility, not only a MORAL impossibility.

If your mind is set on the things of the flesh, BY DEFINITION you are NOT loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And thus you ARE DISOBEYING the greatest commandment. You cannot obey the Greatest Commandment without taking your focus OFF the things of this world and putting it ON the things of God.

You see, we think we are searching for life. And we hear other people talk, we read in magazines, we hear on the radio: Joy is found in sports! Joy is found in money! Joy is found in cars! Joy is found in sex! Joy is found in political power! And we aim at these – and try to keep God in our back pockets as an insurance policy, an eternal life insurance policy. And try to use God as a means to an end – to control our weight, or to conquer bad habits, or to make us respectable, so that we can gain other things.

But when we try to use God in this way, we end up as His enemies, and we end up missing out on life. True life, the deepest joy, does not exist apart from God. Eternal life is knowing God!

What is the result of focusing on the things of the Spirit?

This question is closely related to next week’s topic: Do you have the Spirit? So we’ll mainly pick up on this next time. But look at the second half of verse 6: “the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”

This is simply the positive side of all we have been saying. True life is found in God! Peace with God! Wholeness! Becoming what our Creator intends us to be!

The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is an illustration of this. The younger son focuses on the things of this world, not on his father. He sees his father as a means to an end, as a source of cash, as a means to get the things of the world. So he takes his inheritance and goes off to a far country and spends it.

What is the result of this seeking for true life apart from his father? In verse 24, the father says, “This my son was dead.” Death! Setting his mind on the things of the flesh leads to his death!

But upon his return, when his father runs out to meet him, when he sees the grace of love of this father who loves him though he stinks, who dresses him and bathes him and throws a party for him, he is overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with grace. He sees he has earned nothing, he deserved punishment and wrath, but the father gives him life and peace. His focus changes from the things of this world to the love of his father. And so he is alive. “This my son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”        


So where is your focus?

This Resurrection Sunday, do you need to lift your focus? Do you need to repent? Do you need to look anew at the glories of the God who died for you, and who was raised because of your justification?

Have you shifted your focus away from God and to your career, to your family, to your marriage, to sports, to entertainment?

This is not some minor point, some secondary issue. Your assurance of salvation depends upon your mindset. If your mind is set on the things of this world, you have no basis for assurance.

But I proclaim to you this morning that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And this resurrection verifies that the penalty is paid in full. Come to Him! Throw aside all other goals, all other mindsets, and fix your eyes on Him. Love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you will have life and peace.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 4/20/03.

Copyright © 2003, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, posted on the internet, copied for resale or incorporated in any products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, 45 Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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