Two helpful “don’ts” for understanding the Bible: (1) Don’t be all binary about what you read and (2) Don’t stop reading too soon.
In Romans 8, for example, reading verses 5-9 with an “either/or” frame of mind will lead someone to a very logical — and very wrong — interpretation.
The passage says:
5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. 6 If your sinful nature controls your mind, there is death. But if the Holy Spirit controls your mind, there is life and peace. 7 For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. 8 That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God. 9 But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them are not Christians at all.) (NLT)
What have we just read?
[A] A person who does not have the Spirit of Christ living in him is not a Christian at all. (v.9c)
[B] A person who has the Spirit of God living in him is controlled by the Spirit. (v.9b)
[C] A person who is controlled by the Holy Spirit thinks about things that please the Spirit. (v.5b)
[D] A person who is controlled by the sinful nature thinks about sinful things. (v.5a)
Conclusion: That sinful thought you had last night proves you aren’t really a Christian. You probably weren’t sincere enough when you accepted Christ before. You need to get saved for real (this time). <Cue pianist. Open invitation.>
The problem, of course, is that even the best Christian is going to be afflicted by a sinful thought from time to time. If having that thought is proof you aren’t a true Christian, then no one will ever be a true Christian.
If you had kept reading in chapter 8, however, you would have found vv.12-13:
So, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation whatsoever to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you keep on following it, you will perish. But if through the power of the Holy Spirit you turn from it and its evil deeds, you will live.
Turns out, Paul isn’t writing about a problem; he’s warning of a danger.
The problem isn’t that all you people who think you are Christians really aren’t.
Paul is warning Christians — his “dear brothers and sisters” — that they face a life-or-death danger. While the power of Christ’s resurrection has set you free from the power of sin, your sinful nature still lurks in the shadows, urging you to come back to the dark side. Paul’s warning: “If you keep on following it, you will perish.” If, on the other hand, you allow the powerful Holy Spirit to help you turn away, you will live!
If you teach the Bible like Spock, you will lead trusting souls into deception. Stop reading too soon, and you could lead them into death. Read the text carefully — all of it. And listen to the brilliantly smart Spirit, not the puny binary computer in your head, as you seek to understand.