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Contrary to Human Nature
June 10, 1979

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ROMANS 8:12-17

The Bible expects us to live contrary to human nature. The Bible assumes there is a separation, a disparity between God's will and our human nature. The Bible expects us to live contrary to our natural inclinations and desires. We sometimes forget that our natural human nature is tainted with sin. Paul keeps holding that challenge before us to live contrary to human nature. In Romans 8:12-17, he spells this out and begins by saying, “If you live according to your human nature, you will die.” You are going to die. That's the warning. That's the challenge. 

What does he mean by human nature? The Revised Standard Version which we heard earlier, and the King James Version uses the word “flesh”. If you live according to the flesh, you will die. The Good News Translation uses “human nature” instead of “flesh”. The Jerusalem Bible uses the word “unspiritual” instead of “flesh”. I like both of those words better than the word flesh because flesh means something else to us today. The Greek word that Paul is using is sarx. It literally means flesh and blood. It literally means our body, but in common usage, it began to mean more than just the physical body. What Paul means by that is very important to us. When we translate this Greek word as flesh, it has come to mean bodily appetites, bodily desires and sexual drives. People who take the extreme position of putting to death the deeds of the body or the flesh, as Paul tells us to do, give up food, give up sex, give up ordinary living and go off and live in monasteries or caves or in the hills. They separate themselves as if their spirit can be separated from the body. 

But that's not what Paul means. Human nature is a better translation than flesh. What is meant by this passage is that which is in us that is open and vulnerable to sin, what is contrary to the will of God. Paul is talking about that which is in us that makes us closed to the spiritual dimension, that which is in us that makes it difficult for God to relate with us and for God to move in our lives. To live according to human nature is to be shut off from God and not open to God's Spirit. 

Paul further defines what he means by human nature in Galatians 5:10- 21. In the older translations, this is called “works of the flesh”. The Good News translation calls it human nature. What Paul means by human nature is immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. To live according to human nature is to be angry, selfish, to develop party spirit and break into factions, to be impure, to be idolaters. The Jerusalem Bible sums up all of these qualities, all of these characteristics, as “self-indulgence”. To live according to our human nature is to indulge ourselves in selfishness and self centeredness. 

Our culture, which is directed and controlled by human nature, tells us that the worth of a person is dependent on what he or she can accumulate and gather selfishly. Our culture tells us that the worth of a person is in how big a house they live in, or how big a car, or how fancy a sports car, or how many boats or swimming pools. Our culture tells us that a person's worth is dependent on how much education they have, or how big a job, or how important they are in the community. Our culture tells us that the worth of a person is dependent on their things. Paul calls that human nature, self-indulgence. And you who live according to those standards and values are going to die. 

A few years ago, a sociology class in a college conducted an experiment among the students. It told the students if you have a certain amount of money that you've decided you're going to contribute to a worthy cause, which one of the of the following three causes would you give your money to? There were three choices. 

Number one. At this time, there was a severe drought in southern India. Women and children were dying, starving. The men were not only starving, but were suffering despondency and depression because they couldn't feed their families. 

The second option was a black student in that particular college who was going to have to drop out of school because his family was going through a severe financial crisis, and if the student didn't get enough money immediately to sustain him over this rough period, the student would have to leave the school. 

Option number three was to buy a copying machine for the college for the students to use. It explained that this gift would really enhance their educational experience and make it a lot easier for them because they could copy passages out of books instead of writing them down longhand. They could copy, they could reproduce their papers. 

Those were the three options. Guess which was supported. 85% of the students on that campus would give their money to buy the copying machine. 85% would buy the machine to make their studying easier. 3% would respond to the starvation of children and women in India. That is to live according to human nature. The nature of the beast is to take care of our own particular selfish interests first. 

Paul, in Romans 8:12-17, spells out what happens to people who live according to their human nature. They become slaves to human nature, and the emotion which results from slavery, from being possessed by self indulgence, selfishness and self centeredness is fear.  Paul says fear eats away and death comes—separation from God. Perhaps much of America's anxiety can be explained by this insight of Paul. America’s fears—worrying, pills we take, the doctor we see, the medicines, the tranquilizers, the alcohol, the drugs’ perhaps all these things that are eating away at America are because we're living according to human nature, which leads us to death. 

But, Paul says if by the Spirit you put to death your sinful actions, you put to death your human nature, you will live. The Revised Standard Version says, “if you kill the deeds of the body”, if you live contrary to human nature, you will live. If you live spiritually, you will live. This happens, Paul says, because we are adopted children. When we live by the Spirit, we are adopted as children.Those who are led by God's Spirit are God's children. The Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid. Instead, the Spirit makes you God's children. 

Adoption was a very powerful image for Paul, more powerful than in our day. Adoption in Roman society was a very serious act, and a very complicated act because of its seriousness. In Roman society, the father had absolute power over his family. Those were the good old days. The father had absolute power over his children. He determined their future. He determined their course, he even had the power of death in the early days of Roman society. Absolute right, absolute power belonged to the father. As long as the father lived, he had absolute power over his children. 

So adoption was a very serious and complicated manner. When a person was adopted into a family, that person lost all rights to the old family, and adopted all the rights of the new family. He gained all the rights of the new. He became heir in the new family. Even if natural children were born later, the adopted one retained his heirship. Legally, the old life was washed away, wiped away. Even debts incurred by the person were wiped away when he was adopted into a new family. That's how powerful adoption was—a new person came into a new life. Paul takes that image of adoption and says that's what happens to us as Christians. Once you were enslaved to your human nature. Your human nature had absolute power, control and persuasion over you. You were enslaved by it, gripped by it. 

But God through Jesus Christ has now adopted you, and you are now God's child. You are in God's family. The power of human nature is severed and destroyed, and now God has absolute power and absolute destiny over you. Your old life is done. Your old life is passed, all the debts are wiped away. You start all over again in God's family. The Spirit is the witness to you that this has happened. In Roman society, seven people witnessed the adoption act, and seven people would witness throughout life if there were ever any questions about that adoption. There were seven witnesses who had the power to testify. And the Holy Spirit, Paul says, is the witness that you are now God's child. The Holy Spirit will testify and will speak for you. Whenever there's any question, the Holy Spirit will testify and say you are one of God's children. You are an heir, an inheritor of God's estate. All that God has is now yours. Paul says since we are God’s children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people. 

We will also share his glory. We will possess with Christ what God has kept for him. We will possess with Christ—joint heirs, fellow heirs. All that God's own Son receives, we will share. You will participate because you are an heir of God's rich, abundant blessings in this new adopted family. 

A famous poet by the name of Anonymous, wrote “Drinking From the Saucer”. It was in our newsletter this week. 

I've never made a fortune and I'll never make one now. 

But it really doesn't matter, because I'm happy anyhow. 

As I go along my journey, I'm reaping better than I've sown. 

I'm drinking from the saucer because my cup has overflowed.


I don't have a lot of riches, and sometimes the going is tough. 

But while I've got my kids to love me, I think I'm rich enough. 

I'll just thank God for the blessings that his mercy has bestowed. 

I'm drinking from the saucer because my cup has overflowed.


If you give me strength and courage when the way grows steep and rough, 

I'll not ask for other blessings. I'm already blessed enough. 

May I never be too busy to help bear another's load. 

Then I'll be drinking from the saucer because my cup has overflowed. 

As one of God's children, we inherit all his blessings. The Bible expects you to live contrary to your natural human inclinations, which are self-indulgence and selfishness—all that is in you that keeps God's spirit from moving. But if by the Spirit you put to death human nature, God adopts you as his child. "If you live according to your human nature, you are going to die. But, if by the Spirit you put to death your sinful actions, you will live." 

© 1979 Douglas I. Norris