Last week we talked about the failure of being human. Chapter 7 lays out the dilemma we face: We know what is good and we want to do what is good, but we are slaves to Sin. Even our best efforts lead to failure, so that we long for the victory that God gives through Jesus Christ.
Today we talk about that victory. Paul turns a corner here in Romans 8. Chapters 1 to 7 have laid out the problem with being human. As Ben Witherington puts it, Paul works from the general (all people have sinned) to the particular (even the Jews have fallen short of God’s glory) in chapters 1 to 3, then back from the particular (Abraham) to the general (sinful humanity) in chapters 4 to 7. He has set up the problem carefully and comprehensively; now he gives the cure: Life in Christ through the Spirit of Christ.
We walk through the text together to see what Paul is saying. Although we read Romans 8: 1 to 11, I will go through verse 17 this morning.
Verses 1 to 4: Those who are “in Christ Jesus” are free from “condemnation”. The Spirit of God sets them free from the power of “sin and death” (that is, the power of Satan). God [the Father] sent the God the Son in human form (fully human), but as the perfect one [the New Adam: see Romans 5] whose righteousness in dying on the cross sets us free from the penalty of sin and sets us free to fulfill the law of love [“Love God; and love your neighbour].
There is a huge amount of material packed into this basic thought, most of which we cannot explore. Just two comments this morning. 1) The Son sets us free from the penalty of sin. We call this atonement. We have various images drawn from the New Testament to describe how God sets us free on the cross. Given that we are finite creatures, we cannot comprehend the mind of the Creator, so we draw on God’s self-revelation in Scripture to understand what is going on in the atonement.
One [substitutionary atonement] is that Jesus takes our place: We deserve to die, and Jesus took our death into his own so that we can live. Another is that Jesus conquers sin and death [Christus Victor]. Satan thought that he had won when Jesus died on the cross, but in the resurrection of Jesus we find that death itself has died. We are therefore free from the power of sin and death. A third is that Jesus invites us to follow him [Imitation of Christ], to take up our cross and die with him so that we can rise with him. A fourth is the simple image of sacrifice. The sacrifice [or offering] for sin, as the Jews understood it, cleansed the sinner and made him/her able to stand in God’s presence, righteous and unafraid of the Holy God. We do not think often of this category of cleansing today, but you recognize its psychological truth in life. I think of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, after she and her husband have murdered their king, Duncan. She comes on stage miming the action of washing her hands and talking about the spot of blood that she can’t get off her hands. She knows that she and Macbeth had the power to kill Duncan, but cries out, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” Our sin leaves us feeling dirty and ashamed, and we need cleansing from our slavery to sin.
All four of these are present in verses 1 to 17, and we do not need to choose between them. I recommend that you use the image that speaks most clearly to you. There are other “theories of atonement” besides these, but we don’t need to comprehend the process fully. Indeed, we cannot. In my mission studies I had a professor from Kenya (Timothy Kiogora) who once said to us, “You Americans try too hard. You think you have to understand mystery. Sometimes you need to stand under mystery.” This passage is, I believe, one of those times.
Verses 5 to 8: There are two realms. The realm of the flesh is the place where people do what they want according to the desires of this world. [Note that “flesh” here means self-willed; it is not a statement about physical matter.] The realm of the Spirit is the place where people live according to God’s Law and desires. Those who live in the realm of the flesh do what they want, and therefore they cannot please God. They will die, because they have decided to live for themselves and not to live for God.
“They will die.” Everyone will die physically, but death in these verses refers to eternity without God. If you want to live with God here on earth and in the eternity that follows, you need “the mind governed by the Spirit.”
Verses 9-11: When you give yourselves to God, the Spirit of God [that is, the Spirit of Christ] lives in you. Christ in you then gives you the life and ways of Christ. You begin to walk the way that God wants everyone to walk.
We do not need to think of what some call “sinless perfection”. At the end of the next section in verse 30 Paul lays out a progression from being predestined to being called to being justified to being glorified. The point these is that “sinless perfection” [being glorified] comes when we die and are made perfect in God’s presence.
I remember a long time BIC minister who preached sinless perfection on the basis of such passages as Romans 8. He was a pastor in Pennsylvania and a noted camp meeting preacher. Then he went to Zimbabwe and taught in a Bible School there for 10 years, when he was in his mid-50s. When he returned to Pennsylvania he said, “The people in the Bible School in Zimbabwe taught me that sinless perfection is not true.” And he went around to the churches he had taught before, reminding people that we live with the reality of the realm of the flesh until we die.
But we do not need to feel afraid or trapped by “the flesh”. The triumph of the Spirit is real. Although we may fall into sin from time to time, we have God’s Spirit with us to help us stand up and seek and receive forgiveness. I have been learning this lesson through an inner voice that spoke to me last year when I was about to indulge in a habit God wanted me to break. The voice said, “I don’t want that.” I discovered that, therefore, neither did I. God’s Spirit gives us freedom in areas of our lives we may have never expected.
If you ask me how I reached that point, I can’t tell you. But I have prayed each day for many years something like this: “Lord, teach me to know you better, to love you more deeply, and to serve you more fully.” We enter a relationship with Jesus in which the Spirit of Christ takes control.
Verses 12 to 17: So we live by the Spirit, who leads us into an intimate relationship with God, so close that we can cry out to God, “Abba Father!” Walking closely with Jesus, we find that we are God’s children, we are God’s heirs, and we share in the sufferings and glory of Christ.
What Does This All Mean?
I have a friend who no longer believes in God. When we have talked about what he believes and what I believe, he has said to me, “The trouble is, I don’t know what you mean by ‘God.’ The word doesn’t mean anything to me.” This is a common problem as we try to express what we believe as Christians. People listening to us wonder what we mean. This problem is especially acute in a letter such as Romans, in which Paul speaks as a Christian teacher to Christians about their common faith. He is not trying to speak to those outside the faith.
What then do we mean when we say that God gives us victory as we live in the Spirit? I must admit that the answer is not obvious to me. To some extent I can only say, “Come and see!” Give it a try and see what is there. Jesus told us that God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4). I can add also, God is a person – not a person with a body, but a person who relates to us. If I tell you about Lois, you may wonder who she is. But when you meet her you find out. That’s the idea with God. You can’t explain God so much as you have to meet God.
I think that is what is going on in Romans 7 and 8. The Jews were trying to become part of the realm of the Spirit by keeping the Law of Moses. They failed. Paul suggests a different way that does not contradict the Law, but goes around it in order to fulfill it. The point of the Law is to become people who love God and love each other, but the Law cannot produce such love. Instead, Paul tells us that the Spirit of Christ living in us makes us people who fulfill the Law, that is, people who love God and love each other completely.
The beginning essential step is that we become people in whom the Spirit of Christ lives. How does that happen? This is like the question, how does the atonement happen? All I can do is give you images that together try to show the picture of Christ living in us. If you want to know what that means, I can only invite you to come to God and ask for God’s Spirit within you.
Thinking It Through
This is a process that begins with conversion and continues throughout our lives. I have spoken before about my encounter with darkness when I was 58 years old. The healing of my darkness came through a dream in the night and a voice in the morning. God came to me in my darkness and told me what to do. If you want me to tell you how this happened, I can’t. I can only tell you that it did. In my last dream I remember floating in the sea, and thinking, “It’s all right. This is the sea of God’s love. Even if it gets stormy, I’m floating in the sea of God’s love.”
I have not achieved perfection in loving God or loving others as God’s Spirit lives in me, but I’m on the way, and I know that God is with me and in me. Who is God? I can tell you about God, but I can’t really answer your question. I can only invite you to join me in the way.
I think of another person’s experience. Don Jacobs was a Mennonite missionary in Tanzania. He came to faith in Pennsylvania, joined the Mennonite church there, and married a Swiss Mennonite from Lancaster County. They went to Tanzania in 1954, where they came in contact with something called “The East African Revival.” Missionaries and African Christians experienced the inbreaking of God’s Spirit in wonderful ways. They became known as the Balakole, “the saved ones”. At first Don resisted their influence, figuring that he was already a Christian, and that was good enough. Then he met Mugimba.
Here’s how he describes what happened through this dear Ugandan brother:
My relationship with Eliezer Mugimba opened a new chapter in my spiritual journey. He was tall, tender, and kind, like a caring family member. He opened his heart to me, encouraging me to come out of my spiritual shell and be willing to walk in light with another person. His love overwhelmed me, and at last, my reserve broken, I poured out all my frustrations and fear, my cynicism and critical spirit and a host of other sins that I was pampering in my life. The dam broke. In an instant my resistance to the revival collapsed, and I knew that I had found a truly human context in which to learn of Jesus.
Many years later, I visited Mugimba, then an old man, almost blind, in his village in Uganda. As we reviewed those early days, he said, “When you came to Katoke, the Holy Spirit said, ‘That young American is your mission field!’” That explained it all. I was sent to the mission field, not knowing that I was that “field.” I surely was. God turns things upside down often.
Jacobs describes life with others who had experienced revival as a relationship within which people regularly reviewed their lives and sought forgiveness for the normal clashes among those who live and work together. When he visited another group of missionaries who were in conflict, he described the distress he felt that they could not bring their conflict into the open and seek the presence of God’s Spirit to heal their conflict.
But how does this happen? How do we “receive God’s Spirit”? The images of atonement I mentioned earlier are one clue.
· The image of substitution lets us know that this is something God does for us by taking the penalty for our sin on the cross. This substitution sets us free to live “in Christ” as slaves of righteousness.
· The image of victory lets us know that God breaks the power of sin on the cross, absorbing sin’s work into himself and defeating it in the resurrection. This victory sets us free to live in Christ as servants of righteousness.
· The image of imitation lets us know that we have a part to play. We imitate Christ—loving God fully and loving each other without reserve, acting as servants of righteousness. As we put our hands to the tool and start to do our work, God takes our hands and guides them to do what we cannot do. God fills us with the Spirit of Christ to live God’s way.
· The image of sacrifice, cleansing our sinfulness, lets us know that we are remade in God’s likeness and as God’s representatives [“images of God”—“in God’s image”]. As God makes us the way we were meant to be, we are free to live in Christ and to serve righteousness.
You see that this process combines our choice to follow God [“whoever would be my disciple must take up their cross and follow me”] and God’s work in us. In ourselves we cannot love with God’s love, and we cannot live as God’s people. God must do the work. But equally God respects our choice to serve Christ or to serve ourselves.
Another clue: in Don Jacobs personal story, you note the place of community. We receive God’s Spirit most easily and most fully when we are searching with our brothers and sisters. When I was at Asbury Seminary, I heard stories about the Asbury Revival that had come to first to the college campus and then to the seminary in 1970. Both of the elements I have noted above were present: God entered people’s lives doing what they could not themselves do; and people were seeking for God’s presence. Paul says it like this in Philippians: “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to do his good will.”
You see that I cannot really answer the question: How does this happen. I can only echo my Kenyan friend: “We are too eager to understand mystery. Sometimes you have to stand under God’s mystery.” What I can tell you is this: If you desire God’s Spirit in your life and continue to search for the Spirit of Christ, God will give you the Spirit of Christ. Christ will live in you, “the hope of glory.”
How? All I can say is, “Come and see that the Lord is good.” If you ask me, “How can I meet your friend?” all I can do is introduce you to my friend. Meeting my friend is up to you and my friend. The same is true of meeting God and receiving the Spirit of Christ. Paul is clear: The Spirit of Christ living within each of us is the path for every Christian, not a special gift for a few holy rollers. We meet Christ, and we live with Christ, and Christ lives in us, setting us free from the power of sin to fulfill the goal of law, which is to love God fully and to love each other with God’s love. Sin is power that seeks to destroy us; Christ is the Person who sets us free.
Grace Bible Church
16 July 2017
Text: Romans 8:1-17
Life through the Spirit
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For 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.14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.