Having spent a couple of days last week looking at what comes before it in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we’re now (finally) ready to work through chapter 8. The initial question Paul answers is this one: how is our new life in Jesus going to be any different from the experience described in Romans chapter 7? Sure, we’re now justified/forgiven/at peace with God – but are we still condemned to a life of failure, knowing the good we ought to do but being unable to do it? Under the old covenant, the Law didn’t help us – all it did was condemn us; how will the new covenant be any different?
Romans 8:1-2 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.
Answer: the difference is the gift of the Spirit. Instead of the “law” of sin ruling us (and leading to death), now the “law” of the Spirit rules us (and it leads to life).
But how does this work?
Romans 8:3-4 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.
The law was “powerless” because it couldn’t produce a change of heart. It only dealt with externalities, not motivation. In theory, it shows a godly person how God wants them to live; but in practice, our sinful nature means that it’s just a tantalising glimpse of how we could live if our hearts were right.
So given that we (and the law) couldn’t fix the situation, God did something for us. He sent Jesus to become one of us (“in the likeness of sinful flesh”) to deal with sin – he became a sin offering. He took the penalty for our sin in himself, so that justice would be done yet we could be shown mercy (remember Rom 3:25-26 last week?)
And he didn’t simply take the penalty for sin: he made it so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us.” This may refer to having his righteousness credited to us (who are unrighteous). However, the context of the chapter (and the rest of verse 4) means it probably refers here to how the indwelling Spirit enables us to live in a way that pleases God.
The essence of the change is that the pattern of our lives is no longer determined, on the whole, by our sinful nature, but by the indwelling Spirit.
Paul then unpacks this, talking firstly about how the flesh (our sinful nature) is hostile to the way God wants us to live:
Romans 8:5-8 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.
The word “mind” (phronēma) refers to the emotions, desires, and will, as well as the intellect. Without the Spirit, our whole being is oriented toward fleshly desires that are opposed to God. But if we live by the Spirit, then our whole being is oriented toward what God wants. This isn’t, then, a naïve perfectionism – it’s about the orientation of our lives. What are we striving toward – satisfying our sinful desires, or satisfying God?
The contrast between the two can’t be more unmistakeable: the one “is death” and the other “is life and peace.” This could refer to the consequences of each mindset (what your mind is set on leads to either death or life) or the focus of each (the mind set on the kinds of things that lead to death/life) – but either way, the intention is clear. It’s life-and-death.
And it’s something that we can’t achieve on our own, just by trying harder. The mind “governed by” or “in the realm of” the flesh is incapable of submitting to what God wants. It’s incapable of living by the Spirit. So this isn’t a command to “start living by the Spirit instead of by the flesh,” as though there’s a choice to be had. Paul’s point is that we can’t! Instead, this is a statement of fact: those living in the realm of the flesh can’t please God.
Equally a statement of fact is what Paul says next to his audience, who are (he assumes) those who have placed their trust in Jesus:
Romans 8:9a 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.
In other words, something objective has taken place. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we who are in Christ have been transferred from one realm to another. No longer are we in the realm of the flesh; we now live in the realm of the Spirit. That’s a decisive, once-for-all change that was done for us by God.
Sure, we still live “between the times,” experiencing the vestiges of our sinful nature which continues to wage war against us. But Paul’s exhortation (in verse 13, tomorrow) to live by the Spirit isn’t an instruction to keep on trying to be something we could never be; it’s an encouragement to live up to who we now are, because of what God has done.
That’s the crucial difference: those who have been transferred from one realm to another (by the indwelling Spirit of the risen Jesus) are those who will live:
Romans 8:9-11 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.
This gift of the Spirit is not simply a means to live a life that pleases God in the here-and-now (although it is), but it’s also the guarantee that we will one day be raised, just like Jesus. We will be freed from this mortal body (its inevitable death, and its sinful desires) and be resurrected with new bodies that will not decay.
These first eleven verses, then, are simply pointing out the decisive, objective change that has taken place in our lives as a result of what God has done in Jesus. To put it back into the language of Romans 6: we’re no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness. God has set us free in Christ, giving us his Spirit so that we are now capable of desiring what God wants!
So how should we live in response? We’ll get to that tomorrow.
To think about
How has this reading changed – or reminded you of – your understanding of how we can live a life pleasing to God?
For those of you who have experienced this transformation later in life (i.e. beyond, perhaps, the teenage years), what feels different about living in the realm of the Spirit, compared with the realm of the flesh?
For those who have followed Jesus from a young age – what would your life have been like now if you were still in the realm of the flesh?