We finished chapter 7 in Romans last Sunday, and today’s text follows immediately after it. Paul had written about the struggle between his new man and his old sinful flesh. This is the experience of everyone who believes God’s gift of forgiveness and deliverance from death. Today we learn more about our new life in Jesus Christ.
The life of a Christian is another gift from God, which comes through the Holy Spirit. It’s based on our status before God as saints in Christ, where that status becomes a reality every day. We’ve talked about the term “justification.” This is where another word comes in: “sanctification.” It’s also where good works become a part of our relationship with God. And all of these things come as gifts of the Spirit.
One of the things we see in today’s text is the contrast between “flesh” and “spirit.” Sometimes “flesh” just means meat, like you would cook on a grill. But used in contrast with “spirit,” it always means the sinful nature, while “spirit” means the new man of faith in Christ that the Holy Spirit creates within you. Another thing we see again is how the word “law” can be used to refer to various things. God’s law you know in the Commandments, but Paul uses it in other ways here, too.
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
Therefore, brethren, we are debtors — not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
Law is a good thing when it comes from something good and accomplishes something good. Paul uses the word “law” in this chapter in a very broad way. It’s an active governing principle. That includes the Law that God has given, which defines what is good and right. But last week we heard about another active principle in our members that works against our desire to follow God’s Law. Paul has used the word “law” for that too, but it doesn’t come from something good, nor accomplish something good. Today he calls it “the law of sin.”
Paul also uses the word “flesh” in a certain way, which connects with “the law of sin.” The fallen nature, or sinful flesh of man does not obey God’s Law. It obeys “the law of sin” instead. And in contrast to the flesh, Paul speaks of the Spirit. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
There’s yet one more way that Paul uses the word “law” here. It’s not the commandments of God, nor “the law of sin,” but something greater than either one, brought into effect by Christ Jesus and put into practice by the Holy Spirit. He writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” What is this “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus?” It’s another governing principle, which is otherwise called the gospel.
The governing principle of the gospel does not set up a standard of moral behavior for us. Instead, it redefines our existence through something that God has done. That’s why it has accomplished for us what God’s commandments could not do.
“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us…” The message of the gospel flows from the death of Jesus. In Him, God condemned sin and satisfied the moral requirements of His commandments. The gospel brings together God’s righteousness and peace for sinful man in the cross of Jesus. But Paul’s sentence continues by showing how this relates to the Christian’s struggle against the sinful flesh. He’s writing about those…
“who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.”
This is how Paul describes the difference between faith and unbelief. Outwardly, the two may sometimes look the same, but the inward motivation for what they do is different, and God looks at the heart. If you live and walk according to the Spirit of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, then your mind is set on the things of the Spirit. If not, then you walk and live according to the flesh, and that’s where your mind is set. No wonder there’s such a sharp division in the world! The Spirit of God testifies to us through Holy Scripture what it means to live a righteous life. He defines marriage. He declares human life to be sacrosanct, but gives the life of all other creatures into the power of man. He testifies that we have disobeyed God’s will, but that our sins are forgiven in Christ. And the flesh neither accepts nor understands any of it. The judicial system in our land has shifted from upholding the natural law to the law of sin, and it’s encouraging Christians to go along with it. To the extent that you do, you are also walking according to your flesh.
The sinful world, following the flesh, sees what is good and calls it evil. This extends to the highest court of our land, and the highest offices. But it also extends into our own houses through media and the flesh that every Christian carries within his members.
So what of it? Well, those who follow the fleshly (or carnal) mind will find their existence is a dead end, because they are opposed to God. “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
The flesh is also with you, and it opposes God in all that it desires and thinks. It will not, cannot submit to the commandments of God. It resists His Word and the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the reason you (& Paul) must struggle against the body of death to live a righteous life. But the flesh — your sinful flesh — must die under God’s moral law. That is the doom for all who are ruled by the law of sin, including the whole sinful world around us. Its only hope is in the Word of the Spirit.
Paul speaks to fellow believers with this assurance: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.” How can you tell? See if you walk in the flesh or in the Spirit. No doubt you will find that you are a sinner, but do you recognize your sins for what they are? Remember how Paul described himself in the last chapter (19–20): “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” That’s what it’s like to walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh.
“If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Now, when Paul says “the body is dead,” he’s not talking about your physical body as opposed to your soul. It’s another word for “flesh,” which refers to your old sinful nature. Sin makes it dead before God, and this is what has brought physical death to all humanity on Earth. But the Spirit of faith within you is alive before God, and is not subject to the doom of the flesh. And this life is not only a hidden thing in the present time. Paul continues: “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”
This is our theme today: the Spirit of life gives you life in Christ. Without Him and His powerful Word, you are dead, because the flesh itself is lost in sin and death. But the gift of the Spirit is life through faith in Jesus. The difference is huge. This is a gift of grace, a gift we didn’t deserve in the least and can’t repay.
So Paul calls us debtors. We owe something. Now, owing anyone something makes you a servant to that person. This is parallel to what Paul wrote earlier in Romans: “to whom you present yourself slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves.” We are the kind of debtors that can’t repay our debt, and that’s truly a kind of slavery. But when Paul calls us debtors, He’s talking less about slavery, and more about the life it motivates us to live. He writes, “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors — not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
We are debtors to God, belonging to Him now through the redemption Jesus accomplished by shedding His blood for us. We owe Him everything, and that’s just how it ought to be. So our life as debtors is to put the deeds of the flesh to death, to resist that old Adam so active in doing what we as Christians don’t want to do. We owe God the struggle that comes with faith: the daily battle with our own sinful flesh.
Paul goes on to describe the kind of Spirit we have received. This is not a toilsome slavery. Our Lord is not a harsh Master. Jesus said (Matthew 11:29), “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” That’s the sort of Lord and Master we have now, so that the Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of adoption”. Now, that’s much better than slavery, isn’t it? As Jesus teaches in the Lord’s Prayer, His Father wants us to call Him our Father, and to approach Him with all boldness and confidence as children ask their dear father.
Imagine that! If only people in the world could be told; if only they’d stop their persecution of Christians and listen: God has not only reconciled us to Himself, He adopts us as His own children by the power of His Spirit working in the Word. But they usually don’t listen. And you can understand, because sometimes you also resemble that remark.
Yet God has been ever so patient and gracious toward you, and thus He has also extended this time of grace for many others and given us the task of witnessing with our love, our lives, and our language, so that perhaps by means of His Word, the Holy Spirit will bring more sinners into this heavenly family.
As children of God, part of your status is even better than the forgiveness of your sins, if that’s possible. God calls you His heirs. “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” See what a strange kind of debt this is? We owe God our lives, simply because He’s given us so much, both now and in eternity! Right now, we suffer in the world as Jesus did, but so also we will be glorified when the Day arrives.
God has given so much for you, and now to you. You can tell: the sinful flesh is doomed to die, but we have the Spirit of Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria