Life in the Spirit

Chatswood Baptist Church

Romans 8:1-17

What difference does it make?

About 2 months ago, when we were looking at Romans chapter 4, I raised the fact that many people struggle with the idea that our acceptance with God is based purely on faith in Christ, and that it’s not based at all on us living a ‘good life’. And I encouraged you to accept the message of Romans 4, that our justification really is based on faith and faith alone. Faith really is enough, because Jesus is enough. 

However, I appreciate that one of the main reasons people struggle with the idea that it’s just all about believing in Jesus, and nothing to do with your actions or good works, is that it can make Christianity seem kind of pointless here and now. If Christianity is just good news that God has forgiven you, and you don’t really need to do anything, then you may well wonder what difference does that really make to life here and now? It’s all well and good to celebrate the free gift of ‘eternal life’, but that feels pretty abstract and distant… what difference does salvation in Jesus make to your life now?

You see, other religions are all about making a difference to your life here and now! They prescribe rituals and rules and ways of living that are supposed to make life meaningful and help you live well. Is Christianity just a ‘get out of jail free card’ that sits on the shelf until you die?

As you might have guessed, the answer is no! Yes, it’s true that you and I can’t earn our salvation. And our good works can’t overcome the mess of sin and the problem of death. But following Jesus makes a huge difference to life here and now. The Christian faith is all about living a transformed life – the life that God has saved you for! In fact, Romans 8, the passage we’re looking at today highlights that Christian faith, salvation in Jesus, necessarily changes your outlook on life and the way you live. Salvation in Jesus just doesn’t fit with embracing sin as if it doesn’t matter. This passage teaches us that salvation in Jesus is redemption from both the penalty AND the power of sin, because it’s salvation fromsin and death forlife in the Spirit.

You see one of Paul’s key concerns in his letter to the Romans is to demonstrate that the gospel of justification by faith – the gospel he has been proclaiming – is not a meaningless or dangerous message that makes us apathetic or complacent towards sin in our lives. No, Paul makes it very clear that this gospel is truly the saving power of God. 

Rather than hopelessly striving to achieve righteousness of our own under the burden of satisfying the laws demands, we are freely declared to share in the righteousness of Jesus purely on the basis of faith. But this declaration is not a cheap label, covering over an ugly reality – it is made on the basis of us having actually received a new identity. In Christ we share in a new humanity – one characterised by love and righteousness. This is who we really are, this is the reality we are destined to fully experience, and it is the reality that shapes and determines the lives of those who belong to Christ here and now. And it does so, not just because we try hard to live this new life in our own strength, but because the Spirit of God brings this reality into our experience of life here and now.

This is really the new focus of Paul’s argument here in Romans chapter 8. He has already spoken about the logical necessity of turning away from sin and embracing righteousness as people who have been baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. He has already explained how our new identity in Christ, as opposed to our old identity in Adam, is incompatible with ongoing slavery to sin. But what Paul is concerned for us to understand now is how the redemption we have in Christ – based on his sacrifice on the cross and granted through faith in Christ – how this redemption results in a new reality of life through the Spirit of Christ who dwells within us

Liberated in Christ, from the penalty and power of sin, for life in the Spirit

We see the big idea of the passage in verses 1-4, where Paul celebrates what our redemption in Jesus means for us: he has liberated us in Christ from both the penalty and power of sin, so that we might live in the new way of the Spirit.

Liberated from the Penalty of Sin

The opening verse focuses on our liberation from the penaltyof sin, with the emphatic declaration: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Paul is, in a general way, summing up much of the argument about the gospel of Jesus from Chapters 1-7, but he’s also presenting this good news in contrast to his description of life struggling under the law and in the flesh from chapter 7. 

Outside of Christ, he was enslaved to sin, unable to satisfy the law or please God. Now, in Christ, he is liberated from the law, or rule, of sin and death, by the law, or regime, of the Spirit of life, and so he is free from all condemnation!

As Paul explains, in Jesus, God has done what the law could never do. The law could never produce righteousness in us or declare us righteous before God, because it was weakened by ‘the flesh’, or ‘sinful man’ in the older NIV. For Paul ‘the flesh’ is a way of talking about our fallen, or sinful humanity.  And so the law was doomed to fail because it depended on ‘the flesh’.

God, however, has overcome the weakness of our flesh, by sending Jesus to share in the likeness of our sinful flesh to be a sin offering and so to punish sin in the flesh as the law demands. And so, as Paul concludes, God condemned sin in the flesh, in the body of Jesus, so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us.

Jesus sets us free from sin and death by enduring the penalty of sin and death on our behalf. There is no condemnation in Jesus, because the wrath of God against sinful humanity, against ‘the flesh’, has already burned there. Just like in a bushfire, where the safest place to be is where the fire has already burned because there is nothing left to burn, so the safest place in the face of God’s judgement is the cross of Christ – where the claim of sin and the burden of the law over our flesh has already been exhausted. There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

Liberated from the Power of Sin (for life in the Spirit)

But Paul is celebrating more than freedom from the punishment sin deserves – it’s also a liberation from the power of sin. We are set free from the law of sin and death, so that we might walk in the new way of the Spirit.

You see this good news, this liberation, that Paul is celebrating here is exactly where he was headed back towards the start of chapter 7. There he is explaining how we have been freed from sin and the law by sharing in the death of Jesus. In verses 5 and 6 (of chapter 7), he explains, “while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

And it’s this train of thought that Paul is picking up again in Chapter 8 and expanding on. Now, in Jesus and through his Spirit, we’ve been released from the old way – slavery to sin and condemnation under the law – so that we might serve in the new way of the Spirit. 

And so we see that God sent Jesus to condemn sin in the flesh, not just to satisfy the demandsof the law, but so that he might finally bring to fruition the good purpose of his law in us– that we might live in a way that honours him as God and shows love to our neighbour. And this is underlined by the final phrase – it is fulfilled in us, ‘who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ To be sure, the fact that we ‘walk according to the Spirit’ is not the basis of our redemption, it doesn’t earn or achieve our liberation from sin and death. But Paul seems to think it’s important to qualify that it is in those who walk according to the Spirit (and not the flesh) that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled.

Justified in order to be Sanctified

Now we just need to stop there for a moment. Can you see the way Paul is moving back and forth between two fundamental aspects of our salvation? On the one hand, he’s focusing in on our justification through faith in Jesus on the basis of his sacrificial death, but on the other hand, he wants to keep shifting to speak about our sanctification– the reality of being set free from sin and walking according to the Spirit. 

It would fit more neatly with his argument so far to say in verse 2 that ‘the law of faith has set you free in Christ…’, or in verse 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who have faith in Jesus. But he doesn’t. He keeps connecting the grounds of our redemption through the work of Christ with the application of that redemption in us through the work of the Spirit. 

It’s because these realities arebound up together – they cannot and should not be separated. That’s the whole point – the gospel of justification by faith alone is also the gospel of liberation from sin and death through the Spirit. It is salvation from the penalty and the power of sin.

Two ways to live

Paul then goes on in verses 5-8 to expand on the contrast he’s just made between the idea of living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit. His point here is that there really is just two ways to live.

These are two, profoundly different and incompatible ways of being. They’re not just different habits – they’re different realities! On one side is the mindset of the flesh, which leads to death and is ultimately death.  It’s hostile to God, it doesn’t submit to God’s law. Paul describes these people in verse 8 as ‘existing in the flesh’, and says that such people are simply unable to please God. 

And on the other is the mindset of the Spirit – life in the Spirit, according to the Spirit, and directed towards the life and righteousness of the Spirit. This is a completely different existence, and it is life and peace. It is fulfilment of God’s law and pleasing to God. 

Now you might be thinking, reallyIs Paul saying it’s impossible to be a good person unless you’re a Christian, living according to the Spirit of God? That just doesn’t seem to fit! My neighbours and workmates seem pretty decent… well some of them at least. And are Christians really that much better?

And it’s true that we need to be careful of being simplistic at this point. The truth is that all humans are created in God’s image, capable of inspiring actions of love. But it’s equally true that all people are also sinners, capable of profound selfishness. We need to remember that everyone is capable of good, and at the same time, we also need to remember everyone is fundamentally corrupted by sin in their hearts and minds. We’re all good at hiding the sin in our hearts, and so don’t be so easily fooled into thinking that those around us who appear so kind and upstanding aren’t filled with the same pride and selfishness that you and I are (at times!). 

Paul isn’t saying that Christians are better people, or that they will all live better lives than any other non-Christian person. No, he’s saying that the mind of natural humanity – humanity ‘in the flesh’ – is not ultimately focused on and capable of producing the righteousness of God. Humanity in the flesh, even very upstanding and moral humanity in the flesh, is at heart opposed to God’s authority over us. We need to be liberated from sin and from life ‘in the flesh’ by the Spirit himself so that we might live ‘in the new way of the Spirit’.

The Spirit of Life in You

And what Paul goes on to say now is crucial for understanding how this is possible and why it’s possible only for those ‘in Christ’. From verse 9, after having made these stark contrasts, Paul reassures his readers that ‘You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.’ In fact, ‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ Being in Christ necessarily means having Christ in you by his Spirit. And I think this is really the lynchpin of what Paul is saying here.

This is actually the key to whole section – it is the indwelling of the Spirit of God in you and I that makes all this stuff about liberation in Christ through the Spirit and life in the Spirit a reality. If it wasn’t for the incredible blessing of God’s Spirit actually dwelling within us, the Christian life really would just be about hope for the future and gratitude for the past. We could give thanks for God’s mercy in Christ, and we could look forward to redemption in the future. We could even embrace the idea that we have a new identity in Christ, and perhaps even try to live up to the ideal of this identity. But through the indwelling of the Spirit of God, this hope, this redemption becomes a present, transforming experience.

Paul explains that if Christ is in you, then although the body is still subject to death as a result of sin, the Spirit in you is life, resulting in righteousness. Yes, there are big changes to come, we’re still subject to death in this world, still existing in bodies corrupted by sin. And yet if we are in Christ, and so he is in us, there is another power at work – his Spirit is life and righteousness. ‘You see’, Paul goes on, ‘if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the one who raised Christ from the dead will also bring life to your mortal body through his Spirit dwelling in you – that is, he will manifest the new regime of life, grace and righteousness that you belong to in your mortal body, now and fully in the age to come.’ 

This is frankly incredible isn’t it? In my slowly decaying body, in the midst of the frustrations of my sinful heart, despite the mistakes and stumbles, there is another power at work. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of resurrection, is at work, manifesting the new regime of life and righteousness in me. 

Embracing life in the Spirit

But although it is a work of God, an outworking of his gracious salvation in me, it is not a work that happens without me is it?

That’s why Paul draws the conclusion, from verse 12, that we have a clear obligation to live according to the Spirit rather than the flesh. Whilst life in the Spirit and life in the flesh are presented as two incompatible realities, and we ultimately either belong to one or the other, Paul also recognises that we need to consciously embrace life in the Spirit.

He warns us bluntly in verse 13, that if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. There are two ways to live. Just as you are either ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’, and you’re either, ‘under the law’, or ‘under grace’, so you are either living ‘according to the flesh’ or ‘according to the Spirit’. It sounds a lot like Paul is saying we save ourselves by putting sin to death, doesn’t it? But no, he’s just highlighting in very strong language that faith in Christ which claims salvation from sin in him, is faith that also embraces the life of righteousness we have been saved for. 

Someone who claims to have faith in Christ but who embraces sin – who lives according to the flesh and shows no interest in what God wants for their life… that person is dead in sin. They are living according to the flesh, because they are ‘in the flesh’, and they will die.

If you’ve repented of a life of sin and put your trust in Jesus. If you are now ‘in him’, rather than ‘in Adam’, and if you therefore have the Spirit of Jesus dwelling in you and renewing your mind to desire and seek the things God is concerned about… then the only way forwards for you has to beputting to death all the sinful habits and ways of thinking that belong to your old life, and instead embracing the life of love and holiness that you are destined for in Christ!

Spirit of Adoption: confirming & reassuring

Finally, to reinforce this link between our identityas children of God, as those who have God’s spirit dwelling in us, and our behaviouras people who live according to the Spirit, Paul talks about what it really means to experience God’s Spirit in our lives. He explains that the Spirit both reassures us that we are in fact God’s children, and confirms us as his children by leading us day to day in how we live.

In verse 14, Paul explains that all those who are led by the Spirit are in fact ‘sons of God’ – that is, men and women given the privileged status of heirs of God’s glorious kingdom. When we experience and embrace the leading of the Spirit, we are being confirmed and reassured of our identity as God’s children. As we see ourselves following the will of God, bit by bit, not perfectly, but learning to do it, we see that we are indeed someone who ‘lives according to the Spirit’ – we are those in whom the righteous requirements of the law is fully met. As Paul finishes in verse 17, those who truly are heirs with Christ, who will share in his glory to come, are those who share in his sufferings now, rather than choosing pleasure and comfort instead.

But (and this is a big but!), the fundamental experience of God’s Spirit in our life, the primary confirmation of our identity as those who live according to the Spirit, is not conformity to certain behaviour, it’s not measuring up to a certain standard… no, it’s the simple knowledge that God isin fact your loving Father.

You see, as Paul explains in verse 15, the Spirit we received in Christ is not a spirit of slavish, fearful obedience to God, striving to satisfy his demands. No! We have received a Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” 

We walk according to the Spirit, putting sin to death, as God’s children, confident of our inheritance, revelling in our privileged status and access to God; not fearfully and slavishly trying to secure a place in his house. The Spirit actually reassures us of this, Paul explains. He bears witness to our spirit that we are indeed God’s children, and thus heirs of God alongside Christ. This is the core ‘subjective experience’ of the Holy Spirit – crying out to God as your father, knowing that you are in fact his child in Christ, enjoying his pleasure and acceptance, rather than pulling away in fear. 

The Spirit confirms us as God’s children and assures that we are in fact his children. And it’s the experience of crying out to God as our loving Father that ultimately energises and motivates us to follow the lead of his Spirit.

Embrace the difference!

So does Christianity make any difference? Every other religion or philosophy pales into insignificance! In Christ we’ve been liberated from sin and death for life in God’s Spirit!

But if that’s all true… I can imagine that you might have big questions about why your life doesn’t look more different. You may wonder why you still struggle with particular habits or attitudes, when others don’t – or at least don’t seem to. Where is this ‘liberation’ from sin and death? These are questions I ask myself…

Don’t overstate the point

And the first thing to say of course is that we don’t want to overstate the message of this passage. Paul is wanting us to understand how the Spirit brings our salvation in Christ into the present as a life transforming reality. But it’s always as an anticipation, a foretaste, of the full realisation of this salvation to come at the end. Remember, redemption is now, but not yet! The burden of this passage is to make sure we don’t underestimate the work of the Spirit in our life, but of course, we can easily go the other way and grossly overstate the reality.

Remember to look back and give thanks

But there are two other aspects of my own experience which help me understand the truths of this passage. 

Firstly, just because I might continue to struggle in particular ways – perhaps a whole bunch of different ways, that doesn’t mean God isn’t working life and righteousness in me at all. I know as I look back, even on times that seemed so void of growth that God has indeed been working in me, liberating me from old ways in the flesh. It’s true for all of us I’m sure. 

Remember it takes two…

And secondly – and this is in tension with the first point – I know that I have not always, or even often, embraced the calling to live according to the Spirit to the extent that I could. God has made it clear that his work in us will be inseparable from our own efforts to put sin to death and walk according to his Spirit. It is God working in us, by his Spirit.  It’s not just us and our determination. But it doesn’t happen magically. God works in us as we actively participate and consciously put sin to death and embrace the way of the Spirit.

So if, when we are honest with ourselves, we know we have not taken this calling seriously, then there’s not much point wondering why we don’t see much transformation. Kind of like someone wondering why they’re not losing any weight after joining a gym, despite the fact that they never go and continue to eat whatever they want. Maybe time to stop wondering or complaining about lack of results and get stuck into it…

I don’t know what the specific issues are for you. I don’t know what the attitudes, habits and behaviours are that you need to put to death… I don’t know how the Spirit is specifically seeking to guide and lead you in righteousness right now. And Paul doesn’t focus in on particular issues at this point does he, just the big idea… But I suspect you know what the issues are. I suspect you know what it is that you need to be putting to death in your life, and what it is you should be doing to follow the lead of the Spirit. (If you don’t, maybe go read Ephesians 4-6 as a starting point!)

You likely know what you need to do, but it’s going to take some effort and deliberation isn’t it? It will take setting our minds on the things of the Spirit. It will take commitment, conviction and deliberate choices and actions.

Sin won’t die by itself (It’s like a well-fed bacteria!) It will die as you deliberately put it to death by the Spirit. In Christ you’ve been set free for this, and the Spirit is in you for this. We need to know it and embrace it.

It won’t be easy. There will be frustrations. It will no doubt take a long time and a lot of perseverance. But God has set us free to walk in the new way of the Spirit.

Know the difference & Embrace it

Know the difference that Christ and his Spirit makes, and embrace it, says Paul. Rejoice in the liberation from sin and death that God has achieved and is bringing about in your life. Know it and embrace it. Set your mind on the life of righteousness God calls you to in Christ and walk according to this new way of life in the Spirit.