Dan Popp
The (real) secret
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
March 1, 2011

Welcome, or welcome back, to the Romans Book Club. Like many of us, the wretched man of Chapter 7 was baffled as to why he couldn't obey God. Who will deliver me from this body of death? he cried. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! That's who. But we desperately need to know how.

Chapter 8

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. [ESV] ...from the rule of sin that kills. [Beck]

We know that there is no condemnation for the Christian, positionally — that is, our names have been moved from the "Guilty" to the "Not Guilty" column. But that isn't what Paul is saying. Remember that in Chapters 6-8, we're no longer talking about justification. Everything we read here is about our sanctification. We're asking, in effect, how we can live the Christian life. And, like Paul, we've discovered that the problem is our flesh — this battleground of sin that has very much to do with our bodies.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh — subdued, overcame, deprived it of its power. [NASB, Amp]

God, in Christ, subdued and overcame our sin-plagued flesh by taking on flesh, and allowing His flesh to be crucified.

It must be that, when we were united with him in his death (6:5), our flesh was crucified, too.

Am I saying that Christians never sin? No, of course not. I'm saying — or rather, I think Paul is saying — that we have far more power over our natural temptations than we may realize.

Now, the phrase, the likeness of sinful flesh has allowed some people to trip themselves up. One of the early heresies taught that Jesus didn't come in a real, physical body; He just appeared to be human. But this verse doesn't say that the Son came in "the likeness of flesh." The literal reading is, likeness of flesh of sin [Int]. The Jerusalem Bible translates it, God dealt with sin by sending his own Son in a body as physical as any sinful body, and in that body God condemned sin. If Jesus had a fake body, then his death and resurrection were hoaxes that accomplished nothing for us! — which is certainly not Paul's message. (1 Cor. 15:14)

By sending His own Son in a form like that of our own sinful nature, and as a sacrifice for sin, he has passed judgement against sin within that very nature, so that the commandment of the law may find fulfillment in us, whose conduct, no longer under the control of our lower nature, is directed by the Spirit. [NEB] ...so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [RSV]

The purpose of all this forgiveness, all this freedom, is holiness. Ironically, we're going to fulfill the Law not by devoting ourselves to the Law, but as a side effect (if I may put it that way) of God living within us. Not that it won't take conscious effort on our part:

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 set their minds on the things of the Spirit. [ESV]

When you read this section, ask whether this Spirit-life is a one-time deposit given to everyone who believes in Jesus, or whether it's a moment-by-moment choice. It seems to me that the answer is, "both."

For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God. [KJV] ...the fleshly mind hates God. [Beck]

It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. [NIV]

I've said that this lawless, carnal mind also belongs to the legalist. Flesh is flesh, whether it's pigging out at the buffet, or feeding its spiritual pride because it doesn't eat pig. "These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence." (Col. 2:23, NASB)

So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. [KJV]

They must not have any faith (Hebrews 11:6).

But that is not how you live. You are on the spiritual level, if only God's Spirit dwells within you; and if a man does not possess the Spirit of Christ, he is no Christian. [NEB] ...Unless a man has the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. [TCNT]

But if Christ is in you...[Mon]

In the sentences above, the Holy Spirit is called God's Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, and Christ. There is certainly an argument here for the Trinitarian view. But the big point is that every single Christian has the Spirit of Christ. This is a very egalitarian Kingdom indeed! Even the rawest, roughest recruit has the ability to live on this spiritual level.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. [RSV] ...your spirit is full of life because of righteousness. [Mon]

How will Christ set us free from this body of death? Not by taking us out of our bodies (not yet, anyway), but by superseding our death with His Life.

It's not just that your spirit is alive, as some render it. Literally this reads: the Spirit is life. The Spirit is God, and God is by definition the only being who "has life in Himself." (See John 5:26) This is the kind, the quality, the quantity of Life inside the believer. His masterpiece? The Resurrection.

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if you go on living according to the flesh, you are doomed to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death all the base pursuits of the body, then you will live. [NASB, Mon, Con, NEB]

We are dead to sin (6:2) and dead to the Law (7:4) — those are over and done. But our death to the flesh has to be ongoing. How are we to "mortify the flesh," as the old-timers used to say? Certainly not by writing new laws! It's striking that Paul gives no step-by-step instructions on how to walk according to the Spirit. You know: Pray three hours every day, fast twice a week, tithe whatever comes up in your herb garden. That's how our pharisaical minds work, isn't it? — we want a checklist! But the Spirit is like the wind, Jesus said (John 3:8); you don't know what He's up to. That's very hard for regimented, religious people to handle.

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. [NASB]

With apologies to the "What Would Jesus Do?" crowd, who surely mean well, the one thing Jesus didn't do was go around speculating what the Father would do. He saw, supernaturally, what the Father was doing, and did the same. (John 5:19) He was led by the Spirit.

Paul seems to be saying that the secret of the Christian life is like the rest of the good news — both difficult, and easy:

Listen. Obey. Repeat.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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