So we now understand plainly that all men are in a pitiable state of bondage to sin because sin dwells within each man and works in his members as an irresistible law. The Jew is in the same state, for even though he has the law, the law is not able to give him the power to overcome the sin which dwells in him. Yes, the law has great value and even teaches him to love the ways of God if he allows it to. Nevertheless, even the man who comes to love God’s ways of righteousness will not find himself able to accomplish those ways until something fundamentally changes in who he is. Such a man cries out in despair seeking a Savior in his terrible plight. Now we will see in this chapter how such a man is to be delivered.
The first two verses of chapter 8 contain a declaration of the fact that there is a salvation for such a man, that there is a way to be made free from this corrupt and sinful body:
So now, there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set you free from the law of sin and death. (8:1-2)
The first statement is a justification of the man who is in Christ Jesus. He is not to be condemned. This statement might cause some to return again to think primarily about the discussion of justification and substitutionary atonement as discussed in the earlier chapters of the book, but the following statement (as well as the whole flow of thought through these present chapters) helps us to see what is the direction of the argument. We are not merely talking about forgiveness for the wrongs in which we are enslaved. This is not justification of that sort right now. Rather, we are talking about the fact that in Christ Jesus, men are set free from that snare of sin that controls the hearts and lives of all natural men. In Christ, there is a new law that is mightier and greater than that dark and terrible law of sin that rules in our members.
The nature of this new law that promises freedom is described as “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” Here we see remembered the theme of life once again. No longer are we ensnared in inescapable death, but life is given to us, which is a principle, a law, that has power to overcome the corruption of sin that previously controlled us.
Also, an important theme is brought to focus here that previously has only received slight mention. This law is a law “of the Spirit.” We have seen this mentioned in previous places, most recently in 7:6 (“So that we might serve in the newness of the spirit”) and 7:14, (“For we know that the law is spiritual”). We also caught sight of this important theme at two very important places back in 2:29 and 5:5, but it has not yet come to the center of the argument.
The present section, though, is going to be dominated by the two competing forces of the flesh and the Spirit. That contrast is everywhere going to be seen, starting with the very next verses:
For that which was impossible for the law, in which it was weak through the flesh, God, sending His own Son in the likeness of the flesh of sin and concerning sin, condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous matter of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but rather according to the Spirit. (8:1-4)
The law, we remember, good and holy as it was, was unable to bring about a righteous life in any man. What was the problem? It was the corruption of sin that dwelt in the very members of the man. That corruption within man’s own person is given the name of “the flesh” throughout the rest of the discussion. This corrupt flesh made righteousness impossible.
However, God has made a way. He has done what the law could not do on account of the flesh. He has provided a way for the flesh to be subdued. He has sent His own Son in the likeness of that flesh and condemned that sinful body of flesh on the cross. This crucifixion of the flesh is what makes possible the escape from the law of sin and death that reigned over us and left us without hope. A new law now is ready to take its place, the law of the Spirit of life. Those who are in Christ Jesus are synonymous with those who no longer walk according to the flesh but rather according to the Spirit.
This matter of walking according to the Spirit is central to the Christian life and deserves far more attention from us. I feel that it is something that is very neglected in our understanding. When it is thought about, it seems to be something very “mystical” (and in one sense it is so, no doubt), and we really don’t know what to make of it. In this great chapter that brings us to how a man can finally receive deliverance from sin, true salvation, Paul’s explanation centers on the concept of walking according to the Spirit.
Paul will develop the concept of walking in the Spirit much more throughout this chapter. At this point, what we should be able to see fairly clearly is that the Spirit provides a new principle or law that contrasts with the law of sin. By receiving the Spirit, we have a new source and force of motion that promises to carry us along not in the corrupt way of the flesh but in the holy and righteous ways of the law of God.
And this is the point of the deliverance that we have promised to us here. The man in Romans 7 wanted so desperately to fulfill God’s law, for he saw that it was good and righteous and delighted in it, but he was not able to do anything but sin. Now, however, by the power of the Spirit, the man is indeed able to fulfill the law after all. The righteous way of life that the law instructs will now become the reality in the man’s life. He is no longer controlled by the law of sin; he is a man who walks in the Spirit. The law is fulfilled in him.
Paul is now going to begin describing to us the difference in the man of the flesh and the man of the Spirit:
For those being according to the flesh think the things of the flesh, but those according to the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For the thought of the flesh is death, but the thought of the Spirit is life and peace, in that the thought of the flesh is enmity unto God, for it is not subject to the law of God, for it is not even able. But those being in the flesh are not able to please God. (8:5-8)
The flesh, we see, is at a constant enmity with God and with His law. Whatever righteous thing that the law of God would instruct us in, the flesh is always opposed to it and warring with it. The flesh seeks constantly to undermine and corrupt all the pure ways of God. Whatever God is for, the flesh is against. The very nature of the flesh is to war with God.
The natural man exists in the flesh. This is not merely saying that the man has a fleshly body, for all men have such. Rather, the man who is in the flesh is the man who thinks, lives, and acts according to the ways of the flesh. His every thought is according to the perverted and corrupt ways of reasoning that the flesh exhibits and offers him. He cannot even look at life and reality without the corrupting perspective of the flesh perverting his view. Such a man can never be at peace with God or be pleasing to Him.
The man who exists in the Spirit is not this way. Rather, the thoughts of this man are wholly good and healing. They are thoughts of peace and righteousness and all good things. From this man’s actions and words down to his thoughts and desires, all is well with God and according to His ways. Such a man alone has what can truly be called “life.”
How important, how all-important, it is, then, that we be those who live and walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Though the Christian reader who has read the book of Romans before probably already knows the nature of what Paul is referring to concerning the Spirit, it has not yet been entirely made explicit in the passage. Paul next makes it so, though:
But you are not in the flesh, but rather in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. But if Christ is in you, the body indeed is dead because of sin but the spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will make alive even your mortal bodies through the indwelling Spirit within you. (8:9-11)
The central meaning of the idea of being in the Spirit is to have God’s Spirit dwelling within us. When such is the case in the life of a man, everything changes. And such must be the case for any man who would claim to belong to Christ. We perhaps do not appreciate enough what it means for the Holy Spirit to be within a man. Our religion too often is very powerless because we do not understand this grand point of the gospel.
We are dead men without life or hope or goodness within us. But God, looking upon us with love and mercy, made possible a way for us to be brought to life. How? Through His very own Spirit who dwells within us. The Spirit comes and gives life to a dead man. Just as Christ was raised through the Spirit of God when lying dead in the grave, so likewise the spiritually dead man is to be raised to spiritual life. This is a radical concept that must control our whole understanding of salvation, the gospel, and the Christian life.
The Spirit now resides within a man and thus changes that man from the inside. The Spirit within us is now the same Spirit as was within Christ. We now think the way God thinks, in righteous and holy ways. We now desire what God desires. We now live the way Christ lived. A whole new source of spiritual thoughts and impulses fills our heart within, and not a corrupted source like our fallen minds and hearts that we received from Adam through the flesh, but a holy and pure fountain that injects the very divine life into our existence. We have become cleansed with the very purity of God Himself as His Spirit resides within us. Yes, the body is dead because inherited through the corrupt line of Adam, but no longer is our Spirit such. We have been instead made alive through the very life-giving Spirit Himself.
And so we must become those who walk and exist according to this new spiritual nature, inspired and controlled and guided by God’s own Spirit. This is life itself for us, and there is no other sort. All else is death, a miserable and empty existence. God has provided a way to raise us up out of that death unto life. And He also promises more, a resurrection to life from death even of our mortal bodies which are now controlled by the law of sin and death.
But that is to jump ahead just slightly, as Paul himself has done in the closing of verse 11. He is just about ready to look ahead to the glorious future consummation of God’s grace and love in the gospel salvation. As his mind turns ahead in this way, he makes a few more important remarks about our present reality in light of what he is about to discuss concerning the glorious future:
So then, brothers, we are debtors not to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the practices 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 a spirit of slavery again unto fear, but rather you received a spirit of sonship in which we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness to our spirit that we are children of God. But if children, also heirs, heirs indeed of God and fellow-heirs of Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we might also be glorified with Him. (8:12-17)
These verses serve in part as a summary of the basic point of the last three chapters. The summation of the whole argument thus far since the beginning of chapter 6 is that we are not debtors to the flesh, but rather that we must live according to how God’s Spirit leads us.
There are a couple of new emphases here as well as this basic summary, new emphases that serve as a transition to the final glorious note of this great section. First, the language of death and life that has been predominantly past and present now takes on a future aspect. We have mainly heard Paul telling us that we have died with Christ already and thus now enjoy true life. There have been some exceptions to this, some of which we have pointed out and some of which we have not. Nonetheless, the main language has been in these terms.
Here, though, the terms change, and we are told that how we now live will determine whether we will live or die in the future. The look is becoming eschatological. Paul is beginning to consider the future judgment and fate of men. What does the future hold for those who do not follow God’s Spirit in this life? And what reward is there for those who do? Paul is going to hold out before us very glorious truths for the believer who walks according to God’s Spirit.
Secondly, there is an emphasis upon the sonship of the one who follows the leading of God’s Spirit. The language of “slaves” gives way to the language of “sons.” Paul indicated back in chapter 6 when he introduced the language of slavery that he was only speaking according to a human analogy (6:19). That analogy of slavery was useful for those stages of the argument, but now a new analogy is more appropriate, that of sonship.
For one thing, this allows for the concept of inheritance, which fits perfectly into Paul’s plans to consider future glorious rewards for the believer. It will be a rich inheritance because we are inheriting from God Himself as fellow heirs with Christ.
Secondly, the connection of the Spirit to sonship helps to identify the true people of God, which is so very important in light of Paul’s emphasis upon the gospel as universal to both Jew and Gentile. One of the important elements of Paul’s teaching here is the matter of assurance to the believer that he is indeed a child of God. The Spirit Himself bears witness to us of this fact and gives us an inner assurance of the blessings and promises of God.
The Spirit as the mark of assurance of God’s acceptance is no new idea. Do you remember how the book of Acts records the struggle of the early Church to deal with the question of the Gentiles’ entrance into the body? The earliest stages of development of the Church after Pentecost were controlled by the assumption that this message was only for Jews. God eventually sent some believers to the Samaritans (Acts chapter 8), half-Jews, and then later called Peter to preach to Cornelius (Acts chapter 10), a Gentile. In both cases, there was some uncertainty on the part of the Jewish disciples back in Jerusalem as to whether or not these non-Jews should be accepted into the Church.
God, however, gave a sign to remove all doubts as to whether He had chosen these others to be a part of His people or not. What was that sign? The Spirit of God fell upon them. Once the Spirit was granted to these others, then all recognized that surely indeed God had chosen them as well:
Peter yet speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those hearing the word. And the believers of the circumcision were amazed such as who came together with Peter that also upon the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out….Then Peter responded, “No one is able to prohibit water for these to be baptized such as who received the Holy Spirit just as we, is he?” (Acts 10:44-47)
So, the Spirit was the sign from God that He had called also the Gentiles to Himself and not only the Jews. It was a great assurance to Gentile believers and to Jewish believers concerning the Gentiles.
This emphasis upon sonship through the Spirit helps to wrap up again some of the connections with the matter of the Jew and the law and all that Paul has been laboring to demonstrate in this part of Romans. Who are the true sons of God? Those who walk according to God’s Spirit. All the way back at the end of chapter 2, Paul said something much alike concerning the nature of the true Jew. He told us there who the true Jew was, that it was the one who had a true circumcision of heart in the Spirit, not in the letter (2:28). Likewise, we are reminded of the theme of sonship and inheritance as we saw it in connection with the promises given to Abraham as discussed in chapter 4. There, the blessing of justification from sin through faith was clearly demonstrated to belong to those who had the same faith as Abraham had, not mere physical descendents from his line.
So the same point is true here in this same great phase of the argument. Who receives life? Those who are true followers of God’s Spirit and live in the same Spirit as God’s Son Jesus Christ did. It is not simply those who receive the law, but those who fulfill the law through the Spirit. The Jews considered themselves as having the honored position as sons of God, and Paul himself recognizes this claim in some sense in chapter 9 just ahead (verse 4), but in the end, it is only the true follower of God’s Spirit who can rightly be considered a child of God. He alone will inherit the life that is ahead and all the promises of God. All those who walk in the flesh, it matters not who they be, will receive death as their inheritance.
For the present, there is a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. We must here and now be putting to death the flesh through the Spirit. But if we are faithful to do this and follow God’s Spirit as He leads us in these ways in this life, there will be glory ahead of us to share with Christ as well as the suffering we share in this life. That glory will be glorious indeed. Let us turn to hear what Paul has to tell us about that future glory, the fulfilling of the purposes that God has already begun in us.