The Meaning of Romans 8:7: What Is the Carnal Mind?
In Romans 8:7 the apostle Paul wrote about the carnal mind. Just what is the carnal mind? Could you be influenced by it? What hope do you have against it?
What is the carnal mind?
In short, the carnal mind is the mind that is dominated by selfishness. It’s the mind that is self-willed, self-focused and self-seeking. The carnal mind is devoid of the ability to surrender wholeheartedly to God.
The phrase refers to a normal developmental stage in a child’s life when he or she begins to develop independence—and can be more difficult to work with, prone to temper tantrums and saying “no” to parental instruction.
Being carnally minded—or having a carnal mind—is similar to being in the “terrible twos,” except you don’t grow out of it, and it’s directed at God’s instructions.
No matter our age, ethnicity or gender, all of us deal with carnal-mindedness.
It is a fact lost on most people, but because of your carnal mind, you innately resent and resist the idea of a God who has the right and the authority to tell you what to do.
That may seem contradictory—after all, how can the people who appear to be the most dedicated and sincere actually resent the God they claim to worship?
The answer: the carnal mind.
But is that really true?
What is the carnal mind? How can you identify the carnal mind?
Romans 8:7 is a foundational scripture that tells us three must-know facts about the carnal mind. This blog post will examine and explain these three facts and what they mean to you.
“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God”
The word carnal has been mistakenly used to exclusively describe those who indulge in the most unnatural and brutish kinds of sin. But its application is actually much broader than that.
First, we need to establish a biblical definition of the term carnal mind. The phrase is made up primarily of two Greek words: sarkos for “carnal” and phronema for “mind.”
Sarkos comes from the root word sarx, which literally means “flesh,” and phronema has to do with a mind-set, perspective, outlook or disposition.
The Bible, then, says that the fleshly mind—or the natural mind, the way you are—is “enmity” (hostility) against God.
The first truth expressed in Romans 8:7 is that the ordinary mind of a human being is inherently at odds with its Creator. Knowingly or unknowingly, it fights against Him. It opposes—even resents—Him.
One illustration of this antagonism—albeit on a smaller scale—can sometimes be seen in our relationships.
Have you ever felt compelled to confront friends you saw heading in the wrong direction? Maybe they were making bad health, financial or relationship decisions that you knew they’d come to bitterly regret later.
The ordinary mind of a human being is inherently at odds with its Creator. Knowingly or unknowingly, it fights against Him. It opposes—even resents—Him.Maybe, when confronted, they made excuses, said “Here’s what I think,” or “Here’s how I look at it,” and did a little verbal dance to avoid listening to the truth about their decisions.
Maybe your love and concern were met with anger and an outright refusal to listen.
Maybe they even flipped the script and attacked you for something completely unrelated.
In a sense, that parallels humanity’s approach toward its Creator.
To use a more extreme example, consider the murder of the only truly good, pure, innocent, wholesome human being ever to walk the earth: Jesus of Nazareth.
He who had spent 3½ years giving, serving, healing and teaching—who had not been guilty of even a single crime—became the target of the passionate cries of the mob, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21).
In the fraudulent trial, cruel beating and brutal crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we can see the cold and callous nature of the carnal mind on full display.
Notice what Peter was inspired to write about how Jesus responded to the brutality of His persecutors:
“For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example . . . who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:20-23).
How could human beings mock, beat, torture and eventually kill the Man who was God in the flesh?
Because “everyone practicing evil [following the carnal mind] hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed,” as Jesus explained (John 3:20, emphasis added throughout).
It was the hatred—the enmity—displayed by the carnal mind that killed Jesus Christ.
“For it is not subject to the law of God”
This part of Romans 8:7 specifies what it is about God that the carnal mind resists: His law.
The carnal mind will not let God be God. It refuses to acknowledge God as its Ruler, Governor and ultimate Authority.
Because His laws are an expression of that authority, mankind cannot and will not fully obey Him.
Instead, rather than total obedience, what appeals more to the natural man is selective obedience. The carnal mind tends to pick and choose which commandments to obey, to cut verses out of context to justify behavior that is clearly condemned elsewhere, and to reason its way through direct statements in order to do its own thing.
In many cases, the only commandments that are followed are the ones that yield immediate benefits, sound nice and aren’t too restrictive.
Take, for example, the Fourth Commandment.
Every true servant of God down through the centuries has observed the Sabbath, including Jesus Christ and every one of His disciples in the early Church.
But the carnal mind will make every effort to argue its way out of God’s direct command to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day, sometimes using intelligent-sounding theological arguments to convince itself that the Sabbath was abolished, and other times simply saying it was the product of the “harsh God” of the Old Testament.
Even people who readily admit that the Sabbath is still binding on Christians today will try to reason around keeping it by saying things like, “God wouldn’t want me to lose my job,” or “God wouldn’t want me to miss this concert.”
Do any of those approaches characterize you?
If so, why?
It’s the hostility that is being manifested.
To see another example of these stiff-necked tendencies, we need look no further than the ancient nation of Judah.
Notice what God told the rebellious people of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah: “Behold, I am fashioning disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good” (Jeremiah 18:11).
“Make your ways and your doings good” is another way of saying quit disobeying and start obeying.
Repentance was long overdue for the nation, but they chose to stubbornly dig in their heels.
Verse 12 records their carnal-minded, absolute refusal to obey God: “And they [the people of Judah] said, ‘That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart [carnal mind].’”
This stubbornness was not specific to the people of Judah.
In fact, we also find it in Revelation chapters 8-9 where a series of plagues fall on the earth just prior to the return of Jesus Christ. Despite these plagues, each increasing in severity and casualties, the people of the earth will refuse to turn to God, just as the nation of Judah refused.
“But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands . . . and they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Revelation 9:20-21).
God, the One who declares the end from the beginning, confirms that even after devastating plagues that will bring the earth to the brink of destruction, mankind will still not obey God.
That is the extent to which mankind will refuse to be subject to the law of God.
“Nor indeed can be”
God made a covenant with the children of Israel after freeing them spectacularly and dramatically out from under Pharaoh’s oppressive thumb.
“All that the LORD has spoken, we will do,” was the Israelites’ immediate and heartfelt response to God’s intervention in their lives (Exodus 19:8).
One would think that witnessing powerful miracles like the splitting of the Red Sea would inspire the Israelites to do everything in their power to obey God. But the opposite happened.
They utterly failed.
Because of the Israelites’ disobedience, they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until that faithless and unbelieving generation had died.
Christ's sacrifice made it possible for us to have a new start—this time with a powerful Helper to combat the influence of the carnal mind.Why did they disobey God and fail to uphold their end of the covenant?
Romans 8:7 provides the answer: “For it [the carnal mind] is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.”
The New American Standard Bible translates Romans 8:7 as, “For it [the carnal mind] does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.”
Arguing against keeping God’s commandments—justifying sin—is nothing other than the manifestation of the last truth of Romans 8:7: the hopelessness of expecting the carnal mind to obey God on its own.
This was demonstrated repeatedly throughout the history of the ancient Israelites, from their divinely guided exit from Egypt to the moment they were led captive into Babylon.
God lamented over the Israelites’ carnal-mindedness: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
Carnal-mindedness is deeply ingrained in us.
It’s at the source of our inability to obey God; it’s in our nature. (For an in-depth understanding of why we are the way we are, see “What Is Human Nature?”)
So, what can we do about it?
The solution to the carnal mind
Romans 8:7 of and by itself may seem grim.
That becomes especially true when it’s viewed in the context of the preceding verse, which says, “For to be carnally minded is death” (Romans 8:6).
After all, since the Israelites—people who saw God’s dramatic intervention time and time again—could not overcome the influence of the carnal mind, what hope do we have?
If that were all there was to it, we would find ourselves echoing Paul’s sentiment: “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
Fortunately, there is a solution.
Our greatest weapon in the war against our carnal mind is the Holy Spirit, which equips us with the self-control necessary to resist its dictates. Paul answered his own question: Jesus Christ is the One who will deliver us (verse 25). His sacrifice made it possible for us to have a new start—this time with a powerful Helper to combat the influence of the carnal mind.
The remainder of Romans 8:6 tells us, “But to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”
Spiritual-mindedness through the power of God’s Spirit is the solution.
Our greatest weapon in the war against our carnal mind is the Holy Spirit, which equips us with the self-control necessary to resist its dictates. To learn more about this power, read “What Is the Holy Spirit?”
Through the help of the Holy Spirit, we can allow the inspired Scriptures to correct and reprove us, just as they were intended to do.
With that kind of divine assistance, we can finally overcome carnal-mindedness and accept the Bible as the absolute authority in our lives.
We will be able to quit arguing, reasoning and rebelling against God and His Word. We will be able to say, as Jesus did, “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Even Paul, years after receiving the Holy Spirit, committed sin (Romans 7:21-23).
However, with God’s Spirit empowering us, we can overcome and obey the God revealed in the Bible—the God of creation, the God of the apostles.
It is only through His Spirit that we can overcome the influence of the carnal mind.
To learn more about this process, read “Putting to Death the Old Man: What Does That Mean?”