Ray Galea addresses this in his excellent exposition of Romans 8 From Here to Eternity: Assurance in the Face of Sin and Suffering. The book tackles key issues of the Christian life (Christian identity, flesh vs. Spirit, adoption, suffering, eternal security, and more) with freshness, wit, and wisdom. I give it my highest recommendation.
Read Galea’s response below.
We know of those ‘in the flesh’ who, let’s face it, are much nicer people than those ‘in the Spirit’. How does one explain this paradox? There are several things to say.
First, as Tim Keller says, Christians “should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf.”
Second, God’s common grace means that he is at work in the world among his image-bearers, whether they are ‘in the Spirit’ or ‘in the flesh’. Proverbs teaches us that this is a moral universe, and a non-Christian is capable of working out a degree of wise living even without the fear of the Lord. This is the gift of God, which restrains evil and allows this world to be liveable. Even when God hands humanity over to its sin (Rom 1:24, 26, 28), it is not a complete abandonment; it is not hell. That is why we thank God each time we see kind deeds performed by those who don’t know Christ.
Third, those in the Spirit do not all start their new life in the Spirit from the same place. Each of us was dealt a different hand under the providence of God. For example, some grew up in abusive homes, others in loving and secure family environments. That is one of the reasons Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). We measure the journey of the saints from whence they come.
Fourth, not only do we all start our Christian walk in different places; not every Christian is at the same stage of their walk. Some are new Christians, still in the spiritual nursery, saying and doing dumb things. Others have been walking in the Spirit for many years and have matured like a good wine, making them quick to listen and slow to speak.
Fifth, the issue needs to be viewed across generations. There are those who have come to Christ from cultures and family lines that are profoundly anti-Christian at many levels. It may take several generations to deal with these issues, but the Spirit will do his work over time.
Sixth, those who are in the Spirit but lack much fruit may need to be gently confronted in love, not just tolerated within the church of God. Regardless of one’s background, God expects that the saints grow in their love for each other more and more. Yes, the Spirit works in all believers to change them, but we are still commanded to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Sometimes we are stubborn and hard-hearted, which means we can be slow to experience the kind of change that the Spirit is working to bring about. What doesn’t help is when the church fails to teach that while Christians are only saved by grace and not by works, they are also saved to do good works. It doesn’t help that, at times, we neglect the grace of church discipline—a grace that God gives us to enable us to be what he has called us to be (1 Cor 5:5-12).
Seventh, those in the flesh may exhibit wonderful characteristics outwardly, but God judges the heart. Right behaviour for the wrong reason is still sin—just a more sophisticated and socially acceptable version of it. As we saw earlier, it’s possible to do the right things for the wrong reasons, not for God-honouring reasons. One man who came to Christ told me that he would never lie as a non-Christian. This shocked me, given that before I came to Christ my whole life was a lie. When I asked him why he didn’t lie, he said, “It just made me feel good to tell the truth!” This man recognized that telling the truth was the right thing to do, but he did so with no regard at all for God and his glory. While in the flesh, his thinking was still futile. But now, in the Spirit, he told the truth for Jesus’ sake.
Excerpt shared with permission of Matthias Media.