The Liberating Law of the Spirit of Life
We have come to the fourth part of a five part series of messages dealing with aspects of biblical truth which I think we need to know if we are to live the Christian life. First, we talked about the essence of sin: "Whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). Second, we talked about final judgment: who will be judged, on what basis, and what the alternatives are (eternal life versus wrath and fury). And third, we talked about the foundation of the good news. The good news is that God acquits the guilty. He justifies the ungodly. The foundation of this good news is the death of our Lord Jesus, whose suffering and humiliation for the glory of his Father so honored God that God is shown to be righteous, even though he passes over the sins which belittled and defamed God's glory.
But now we must take another crucial step. I would like to take this step with you in the first part of Romans 8. Justification is an act of God not man. It is a divine decision to acquit the guilty, to give all the benefits of the children of God to us who deserve hell. It is based on a transaction that happens outside of ourselves, namely, the death of Jesus Christ in our place. Nevertheless, even though justification is God's act and not ours, and its foundation happens outside ourselves, something must happen in our life, if we are to benefit from these things. Not every sinner is justified. The death of Christ does not turn away the wrath of God from all people. In order to benefit from the work that God has done outside of us, we must now experience the work that he does within us by the Holy Spirit. What is this work and how is it related to the gift of justification? That is the topic for this morning.
Romans 8:1: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." No condemnation! I wonder what you would say if I asked you to make a list of the things that cause the most tension and pressure and anxiety and depression in your life—the things that make days look like they are not worth getting up for; the things that make the going on of life as it is now a very unexciting prospect. I do not know what that list would look like for each of you, but I know this: if you were to add to that list a constant or repeated sense of guilt before God and fear of his displeasure, then life would indeed become almost unlivable. Guilt paralyzes us with depression and creates suicidal tendencies.
If that is true, then I tell you the words "No condemnation!" are the most beautiful words in the world. Come in off the ledge, there's no condemnation! Rise up off your bed of dismay, there's no condemnation! Take a deep breath of clean autumn air and give to the winds your fears, there's no condemnation! O, how I want those words for this church and my family and myself. But are they addressed to me? Are they addressed to you?
In Christ Jesus
"There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." It can be said of no one else: only "to those who are in Christ Jesus." Who are they? Verses 9 and 10 begin to answer the question what it means to be "in Christ Jesus." Notice as we read these verses that the "Spirit," the "Spirit of God," the "Spirit of Christ," and simply "Christ" are all interchangeable:
You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.
It is evident from these verses that the Spirit of God is one with the Spirit of Christ. There are not two Spirits, there is one and he is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Therefore, when we have the Holy Spirit we may be said to have both the Father and the Son dwelling in us by the Spirit. But Romans 8:1 refers to those who are "in Christ" unlike verse 10 which refers to those in whom Christ is. In verse 1 Christ enfolds us; in verse 10 we enfold Christ. But the very point of verse 9 is to explain that there is no substantial difference between these two ways of describing our relation to Christ. It says, "You are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God really dwells in you." It would follow then that you are in Christ, if the Spirit of Christ really dwells in you. Therefore, the first thing we can say about those in Romans 8:1 for whom there is no condemnation is that they are people in whom the Spirit really dwells. To be "in Christ Jesus" is to be so related to him that the acquittal he purchased is now ours. And only those who have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them are thus freed from condemnation. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus," that is, there is no condemnation for those in whom Christ lives by the Holy Spirit.
This understanding of verse 1 is confirmed by verses 13 and 14. Verse 13 says, "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." The life and death spoken of in these verses are eternal life and eternal death. But eternal death is the same as condemnation, and eternal life is the same as "no condemnation." Therefore, verse 13 teaches that to experience "no condemnation" from God, the Holy Spirit must be at work in our lives overcoming our sinful tendencies. This confirms that verse 1 means there is "no condemnation" for those in whom Christ lives by the Spirit.
Similarly, verse 14 gives additional support for this understanding: "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God." Verse 9 says, "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." Now verse 14 gives the positive counterpart of this: "All who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God." To be adopted into God's family as a son is to pass from death to life, from condemnation to "no condemnation." But the means by which we are adopted and the seal of our belonging to God is that he gives us the Spirit of sonship, as verse 15 says, by which we cry, "Abba (daddy), Father." Therefore, it is clear from verses 9, 10, 13, and 14 that those for whom it can be said, "You will experience no condemnation," are only those in whom the Spirit of God dwells, or, to be more specific, with verses 13 and 14, those who by the Spirit are putting to death their sinful tendencies and by the Holy Spirit are being led. Our freedom from final condemnation depends on the sin-killing presence of the Spirit in our lives.
Freed from the Law of Sin and Death by the Spirit
Now we are ready to hear verse 2 for all it is worth and to understand its logical relationship to verse 1. Paul signals with the little word "for" at the beginning of verse 2 that he means to give the basis or foundation of verse 1. He is answering the question why those in Christ Jesus shall experience "no condemnation." His answer is, "Because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." The liberating law of the life-giving Spirit has freed us from the enslaving law of death-giving sin.
The term law in verse 2 does not refer primarily to any written code, but mainly to authority or power. The law of the Spirit is the authority and power of the Spirit; the law of sin is the authority and power of sin. We can see more clearly what Paul means if we look back at Romans 7:21–25:
So I find it to be a law that even when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.
We can see from this section that the "law of sin" is the power and authority that sin has in Paul's body, rather than any written law. He continues with a holy rebellion against his own remaining sinful tendencies.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
I conclude, therefore, that the "law of sin and death" in verse 2 of chapter 8 is the power and authority of sin which rules in a life where God does not have the upper hand but where flesh is dominant. Flesh is the old nature which refuses to rely on God and delight in his ways. And verse 13, you recall, says, "if you live according to the flesh you will die." That is why the "law of sin" is called in verse 2 the "law of sin and death." The person whose flesh dominates his life is ruled by the law of sin and will die. There will be condemnation for those who walk according to their old nature ruled by the law of sin and death.
But there need not be. For as verse 2 says, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus frees from the law of sin and death. God is omnipotent and his Spirit is a Spirit of power and authority, transforming and renewing the mind, sanctifying the heart, putting to death the evil deeds of the body, and liberating us from the law of sin and death. But the relationship of verse 2 to verse 1 shows that without this liberating work of the Spirit in our lives, there will be condemnation.
Notice how Romans 6:20–22 makes the same point: "When you were slaves of sin you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from these things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death." (That's a description of our former bondage to the law of sin and death.) "But now that you have been set free from sin" (that's the same word as in Romans 8:2, so here we have the liberating law of the Spirit of life)—"But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God" (which is another way of saying "are led by the Spirit") "the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life." Or to paraphrase: the return you get from being freed from the law of sin and death and being ruled by the Spirit of life is sanctification and its end, "No condemnation." The logic of Romans 8:1, 2 is exactly the same as 6:22. Those who can count on eternal life, those who can say of themselves, "No condemnation," are those whose slave master is no longer sin but the Spirit of God. "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God." These are the ones from whom condemnation has been removed.
Justifying and Sanctifying Faith
Now I want to stop and make sure that you are hearing what I believe the Scripture is saying, because it is not commonly said, but our lives hang on it. There is a real sense in which our justification depends on our sanctification. There is a sense in which whether we are acquitted before God depends on whether the law of the Spirit of life has freed us from the law of sin and death. But how can this be? For Romans 5:1 says, "We have been justified by faith." The sentence of "not guilty" has already been given, and it was given to those who have faith. How then can I say that the past sentence of "not guilty" is dependent on the present process of sanctification? And how can I say that to experience justification one must not only have faith but also be freed by the Spirit from the power of sin?
The answer to these questions will be found, I think, if we look at two observations from Scripture.
1) The faith to which justification is promised is not merely a single decision to acknowledge Christ's lordship and accept him as Savior. The faith by which we are justified is an ongoing life of faith. When we read Romans 4 and James 2 carefully we see that Abraham believed God's promise and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He was justified by his faith. But then we notice that the illustrations of this faith in Romans 4 and James 2 are not merely its first act in Genesis 12 that caused Abraham to leave the land of Ur and follow God to Canaan, but also Abraham's faith in God's later promise in Genesis 15 to make his own son his heir, and the faith in Genesis 22 that enabled him to almost sacrifice his only son, Isaac. In other words, when Paul and James think of the faith by which Abraham was justified they think not merely of his initial belief but of his ongoing life of faith. Therefore Paul says in Colossians 1:21–23,
And you who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, if indeed you remain in faith stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel.
Or as he says in 1 Corinthians 15:1, 2:
I preached to you the gospel which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain.
We are justified not merely by that initial reception of the gospel but by an ongoing life of faith. That is the first observation from Scripture.
2) Second, the coming of the Holy Spirit into a person's life and the working of the Spirit to liberate that life from the law of sin and death always accompany genuine faith and there is no other way to have it. We learn this from Galatians 3:2–5. Paul asks a series of questions and expects the answers to be obvious:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain—if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
It is by faith that we receive the Holy Spirit, and it is by faith that the Spirit works within us. Wherever you find a person who is putting his daily confidence in the promises of the gospel, there is a person in whom the law of the Spirit of life is at work freeing him from the law of sin and death. To live by faith and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit are the same thing, viewed from two different angles.
Paul says in Romans 8:14, "As many as are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God." John says in John 1:12, "As many as received Christ, to them he gave the right to become sons of God, to those who believed on his name." One must believe in Christ to be God's child; one must be led by the Spirit to be God's child. And these are not two conditions but one, for it is by faith that God supplies to us the Spirit, and it is by a life of faith he works miracles among us. That is the second observation from Scripture.
Now with these two insights I think we can solve our earlier problem. On the one hand Romans 5:1 says we have been justified by faith. On the other hand Romans 8:1, 2 say that there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed me from the law of sin and death. Freedom from condemnation is made conditional upon the work of the Holy Spirit freeing me from sin. These two truths come together in one coherent and powerful truth by means of the two observations we have just made.
First, the faith which justifies is not a single decision but an ongoing reliance upon the promises of God. And, second, it is by this faith that God supplies to us the Spirit and by which the Spirit frees us from the power of sin and death. So we can see that these are not two conditions for justification but only one condition.
O, I hope you grasp what the Word is saying. For I want so much not to be misunderstood in either of the two possible ways. May no one react and say, O, that cannot be. All you have to do is believe in Christ as Savior; you don't have to overcome sin by the power of the Spirit. That error distorts and cheapens faith, contradicts the teaching of Romans 8:1, 2, and runs the risk of hearing Jesus say on the judgment day: Depart from me, you evildoers, I never knew you.
But there is another equally serious error. Someone may say, O, no, not another legalistic load to carry. I cannot bear any more burdens of dos and don'ts. I give up. The Christian life is impossible. But wait a minute. You don't want to believe in a Christ who makes no difference in your life, do you? Who wants a Jesus who is so nothing that all he can produce is a people who mouth religious platitudes but think, feel, and act just like the world? We don't want that. Yet we know we are imperfect people and we still sin. And we want the Holy Spirit to reign more fully in our lives. But we despair. Do not let Satan overcome you with counsels of despair. God does not call you to earn your justification but to rest in his promises. Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Having begun with the Spirit are you now ending with the flesh? Remember this: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus liberates us from the power of sin and death not by works of the law but by faith, by trusting daily in the promises of God.