For the New Testament writers, especially for Paul, conversion means God giving a completely new lifestyle to a person who is remade in their entirety. Mind, Will, Heart, Body, and Relationships all get an extreme home makeover.
For Paul, especially in Romans 8 and Galatians 5, he speaks of this total-lifestyle conversion as moving from flesh to spirit. Paul is very careful though to spell this out for his readers, which he will do, because by talking about flesh he does not mean skin, organs, and bones but old patterns of thinking and living. He even gives us lists of how flesh and spirit are different in order to point us in the right direction.
In the old way our minds dwelt on death and the things of death (R8.5-6). In the Spirit, our minds dwell on life and peace (R8.6). Take stock of your mind; where does it spend its time? Also, in the old way, our hearts were racked with fear (R8.15) and conceit (G5.26). Do you ever have the confusing experience of being both deeply in love with yourself and a yet afraid all at once? This could be called narcissism or paranoia. This is walking by the flesh. Walking by the Spirit is confidence and warmth in our heart. When was the last time you experienced a warm heart?
Walking by the old way also includes a change of will and willfulness. You found yourself doing things that you didn’t want to do, and not doing things you wanted to do (G5.17). Walking by the spirit involves learning to control your desires. Paul calls this crucifying our passions (G5.24). Without the Spirit, suggests Paul, you cannot control you desires; it will be impossible.
How about relationships, with people and with God? What does conversion mean for these? Walking by the flesh means biting at one another, devouring one another with our words, provoking one another and envying one another (G5.15). Do these things dominate your relationships? Are you constantly comparing yourself with others? Are you constantly getting in petty fights with family or coworkers? You are walking by the flesh. Period. Walking by the Spirit means loving and serving one another. If you find yourself consumed with bickering, uncontrolled desires, paranoia, constant thoughts about death, Paul says that this reflects a hatred of God, unwillingness to be subjected to God, and ultimately, you become unable to please God. This is harsh but true; you need a conversion.
Walking by the Spirit joins a person with God and is possible in an intensified way in Christ, but it is not inevitable. Old habits and patterns are lurking, because our old self is still being remade. The relationship between God’s healing role in our lives and our willingness is a mystery, but Paul is helpful in giving us a checklist for us to know if we are on the right path, he calls this the fruit of the spirit. Are you growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control, or are you gorged on the fruit of the flesh: sexual immorality, uncleanliness, sensuality, idol worship, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousness, anger, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things (G5.19-23).
While walking by the spirit means that God destroys the old house, he saves the very best of what has been undone. All of our dreams that were lost to us under our old rundown life are now gathered and remade; this is the promise of living in the Spirit. Just as in the cross, in God’s economy, our dreams are put to death and resurrected anew. Language about “walking in the flesh vs. walking by the spirit plugs right into this framework of conversion. Paul asks us to crucify the flesh and its passions and desires. This is not to say that God wants us to be passionless and empty; rather he wants to resurrect our passions and desires to give us a life that actually fills our earth-bound selves and lifts us into the kingdom of God. The only way to get there is by walking by the spirit. What would it take in your life to move Walking by the Spirit more and more to the center of your attention?