Several years ago, when Rick Perry was governor of Texas, he made the statement that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell. This created the predictable firestorm of condemnation. An article in the Dallas Morning News responded by setting Gandhi as a benchmark for testing theologies of hell. The assumption behind the article and its message was that anyone who lived as good as Gandhi (who didn’t believe in Jesus in the way in which Gov. Perry was speaking) must as a matter of course go to heaven.
There are a host of unspoken assumptions behind that article, but these are assumptions that most people in our culture share, and so the argument is compelling for many in our society. But that makes it all the more important to examine these kinds of hidden assumptions. They are assumptions about the nature of God, the nature of sin, and the nature of salvation, just to mention a few. Though they won’t say it, the view behind this argument of this article is one of a God who is incredibly small and his holiness non-existent, so that sin is not really such a big deal after all. Therefore, if you are a “good” person, you will inevitably gain entrance into heaven. And at the end of the day, they are just peddling a modern gospel of salvation by works.
But what does it mean to be good enough? Most people in our culture would probably answer that question by saying that if you aren’t as bad as Hitler, you will probably be okay. That sets the bar pretty low. Is that right? How can our culture answer that question, especially when it has rejected any kind of absolutes?
Here’s another problem: if it is true that we are saved by being good enough, doesn’t that mean that those who make it are superior to those who don’t? Doesn’t that give a reason for people to look down their noses at those who are not as good as themselves (whatever that means, and it will probably differ from person to person and year to year)? I bring this up because this is often the objection that people make against Christianity, that it makes people self-righteous. I don’t doubt there are self-righteous Christians. But there is an important difference: Christianity does not give us a ground to be self-righteous, whereas the gospel of our culture does.
Why? If you have been listening to the argument of the apostle in this epistle, the only way anyone is saved is not because they are good enough, but because Christ was good enough for them. No one is saved because they were able to pay the moral debt they owe because of sin, but because Jesus paid the debt for them. The gospel of Christ is that we are saved by grace from first to last. Grace, as you know, is favor freely bestowed. Salvation comes to us by grace, and in no other way. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), not the godly. He welcomes the rejects of society and rejects the welcomed of society. He receives the repentant sinner, no matter how great the sin is, and rejects the self-righteous Pharisee who cannot see past his own accomplishments to the bottomless need he has for salvation from the wrath of God.
No Christian, if they are listening to the gospel they profess to believe, can look down their noses at anyone. That is because they cannot credit their salvation to anything they have done or accomplished. Their place in heaven is not determined by their goodness but solely by the grace of God alone. Christianity, of all the voices crying to be heard in the modern marketplace of ideas, is the only idea that truly gives a place for tolerance and loving your neighbor as yourself, no matter who that neighbor is.
I say all this because I think it’s important for us to see that what the culture is offering us is a mess of pottage that will not in the end give us what we are looking for. It cannot give us a God to admire, for its god is too small (or nonexistent). It cannot give us a salvation that will save, for it cannot define what it means to be saved. And it cannot give us grace, for the modern gospel is a gospel of works and self-accomplishment.
We therefore need to hear again what the gospel of Christ has to say. Now it is true that people are revolted by this idea that people who do not believe in Christ go to hell. Okay, but the modern gospel also has its categories of “those who are in” and “those who are out,” even if it cannot precisely define those categories. What puts someone in the “in crowd” is, again, a person’s own accomplishments. You are “in” because you are better than those who are “out.” But Christianity does not go down that route. Rather, it defines those who are in, not on the basis of our works, but on the basis of grace, not on the basis of our goodness, but on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ. And whereas the modern gospel is fuzzy in its determination of the boundary between the “ins” and the “outs,” the gospel makes this very clear. There is something to be said for that.
What does the Bible say? What does it say is the boundary between the saved and the unsaved?
Note that the apostle Paul tells us in verse 9 that some people do not belong to Christ: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Now that would be a superfluous statement if everyone is saved in the end. In any case, given what the apostle has been saying about those in the flesh in the previous verses, it is clear that there are many who are yet “in the flesh.” And that means they are not “in the Spirit;” for you cannot be in both at the same time. That being the case, there are people who therefore do not belong to Christ.
What difference does that make? It makes every difference, for it is only in union with Christ that we are saved. It is “in Christ Jesus” that we are freed from condemnation (8:1). The Spirit of life sets us free “in Christ Jesus” from the law of sin and death (8:2). Every spiritual blessing that brings us to heaven is in Christ (Eph. 1:3). And as our Lord himself put it, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). Or as he put it to the Pharisees of his day, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24). The apostle John affirms: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:10-12).
It is therefore of utmost importance to know whether or not I belong to Jesus Christ. Here, in our text, the apostle gives us four ways by which we can distinguish whether or not we belong to Jesus.
Those who belong to Jesus Christ are not in the flesh (9).
Remember that to be “in the flesh” does not in this context mean to give in temporarily to some sinful impulse, like anger or lust. In the context of Romans 8, it means to be under the sway and control of the flesh. By flesh the Bible means unregenerate nature. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (7-8). This is a mind that is set on the flesh.
Moreover, this is not just referring to drug addicts and harlots, but to self-righteous ascetics as well. As verse 7 puts it, the key to understanding who are in the flesh is to ask to whom their hostility is primarily directed? The problem is not just hostility to our neighbor; more fundamentally, the problem is our hostility towards God.
Now that hostility can come out in different ways. There are of course the angry atheists. But there are also those who are the passive aggressive rebels against God, those who, though they do not loudly rail against God, yet live for themselves rather than for God. God has little, if anything, to do with their life. They may even believe in God, but their life proclaims them to be practical atheists. Such people are just as hostile to God. The question we need to ask ourselves is, who do we serve, who do we live for?
The point is that evil can dwell in the heart, even when those around us cannot see it. I read once of an elderly gentleman who gunned down his neighbor for simply tearing down a fence – people who knew him never suspected he would have done such a thing. But you can be guaranteed that the anger which led to the murder didn’t just erupt out of nowhere. It arose from a heart in opposition to the ways of God.
So if being in the flesh means to be hostile to God, then being in the Spirit is at least determined by the fact that their allegiance is to God, even if it is not perfect. The confession of those who are in the Spirit is the same as that of the apostle Paul: “God to whom I belong and whom I worship [or, serve]” (Acts 27:23). And that brings us to our next point.
Those who belong to Jesus Christ are in the Spirit (9).
That is, they are under the sway and influence of the Spirit. But what does this mean? Let me suggest three things.
First, it means they are being led to put to death the deeds of the body (13, 14). It means we are crucifying the sin that is in our lives. It means that we are at war with the sin that is within. It means that we are not okay with the evil desires that cling to us. It means, on the other hand, that we are given new desires and new affections to love other things, to love God above all. It means we are given new strength with which to carry out this war with sin successfully.
There is a qualitative difference between someone who is in the Spirit and someone who isn’t. If someone claims to be born again and yet there is no difference in their life, you have to wonder about the reality of their claim.
Another way to put this is that it means they keep in step with the Spirit. Paul tells the Galatians that “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). I take to “live by the Spirit” to mean the same thing as being “in the Spirit.” But this inevitably flows over into our walk and the way we live. That’s way Paul means by keeping in step with the Spirit. It means that we produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24), crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires.
Do you remember what Paul said to the Ephesians? He said that they were not to “get drunk with win, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (18). Now that is only possible for those who are already “in the Spirit.” You cannot be filled with the Spirit if you are not in the Spirit. But on the other hand, those who are never filled with the Spirit have little basis for a claim that they are in the Spirit. And what are the evidences of this? Paul goes on: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with you heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (19-20). Those who are in the Spirit are those who are able to be filled with the Spirit. And the fruit of this is running away from debauchery and instead embracing worship and thanksgiving and service to others.
Second, it means they are being guided by the Spirit to embrace truth and reject error. The Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” contrasted with the “spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6). It is important that we do not confuse being led by the Spirit with a fuzzy feeling or even a “religious” experience. For the Spirit guides us through the words of the apostles: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them [the antichrists], for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:4-6). To know God is to know the Spirit of truth; to know the Spirit of truth is to listen to the words of the apostles. To reject their words is to reject God. You cannot be led by the Spirit if the authority over your life is what feels best to you at the time.
It is instructive to note both the similarity and difference between Eph. 5:18-21 and Col. 3:3:16-17. In the former text, the apostle tells the saints to be filled with the Spirit and the evidence of this is worship and thanksgiving. In the latter text, the apostle tells the saints to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” and the evidence of this is worship and thanksgiving. I take that to mean that the way we are filled with the Spirit is by letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. The Spirit leads us by guiding us into all truth (cf. Jn. 16:13).
Third, it means that they are given the nature of a child in God’s family. Paul will go on to say more about this in verses 15-17 of Romans 8. It means we no longer abhor the presence of God but long for it; it means we approach God’s throne as the throne of our Father who loves us. It also means that we love the children of God. The point here is that this is the work of the Spirit. He gives us the name of a child of God in adoption and he gives us the nature of a child of God in regeneration.
Those who belong to Jesus Christ are indwelt by the Spirit (9)
It might seem like I am repeating what I just said, but there is a difference. We are not only in the Spirit, but the Spirit is in us. The text itself makes this distinction: “you are . . . in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” What does this mean? I think it means that we are changed from within; we are not simply told to change from without (like the 10 Commandments). God himself is changing us.
Now what does it mean for the Holy Spirit to dwell in us? The word used here is the Greek word oikeo, which means to live in a house. This in turn invoke the ideas of nearness, familiarity, and influence.
Nearness. The fact that the Holy Spirit dwells in us not only means that he is near us, but that Christ himself is near, for the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s presence (Jn. 14:17-18). Note the names changes: Spirit – Spirit of God – Spirit of Christ – Christ (Rom. 8:9, 10). We shouldn’t interpret that in a Sabellian or modalistic fashion, which thinks of God as revealing himself not as three different persons but as three different modes. The Holy Spirit is indeed distinct from Christ. He is the one who raised Christ from the dead (11). And he is distinct from the Father for he is the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (11). However, the point is that the Spirit mediates the power of the risen Christ in all who belong to him. Note how Paul prays for the Ephesians: “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17). He is indeed near to us through the Spirit.
Familiarity. Not the kind of familiarity that leads to indifference, but the kind of familiarity that leads to communion and fellowship. Christianity is not just a philosophy, it is not just a religion; more fundamentally, it is a relationship. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ comes to indwell us, so that we can have fellowship with him. He communicates to us the love of the Father and we tell him of our love for him. He does not hold us at arm’s length, but rather he embraces us with love and affection.
Influence. This influence can go both ways: we can grieve the Spirit through sin (Eph. 4:29), and the Spirit can change and empower and fill us as we yield in obedience to God’s will for us. But even though it goes both ways, we must never make the mistake of thinking that the Holy Spirit’s work in us is ultimately dependent upon the fragility of our own weak wills. No, he who began a good work in us will complete it at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). He is working in us to bring us into conformity to Christ. He is molding us into Christ-likeness. Are we weak? Yes, but “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26).
Those who belong to Jesus Christ will one day be physically raised from the dead in newness of life (10-11).
We are like unbelievers in a couple of ways: first, we will all die – note the reference to our “mortal bodies” in verse 11 – and second, we will all be raised from the dead. The Bible teaches a general resurrection, a resurrection of the just and the unjust: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29).
However, there is this difference: those who belong to Christ will be raised differently from those who do not belong to Christ. For, as our Lord puts it, there are two types of resurrection: a resurrection of life and a resurrection of condemnation. Those who belong to Christ will be raised to newness of life.
The reason for this, given to us in the text, is two-fold: first, because the Spirit is life, and second, because of the righteousness of Christ. Thus, “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (10). This righteousness is almost certainly the righteousness of Christ, for it is in him that we have the Spirit of life.
The reason why we can know that God will do this, the logic behind this, is given in verse 11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The Spirit raised Christ from the dead. That same Spirit now indwells those who belong to Jesus. And because of their connection to Jesus, the Spirit will certainly raise them from the dead in newness of life.
This is very much the same idea that lies behind Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:19, 20: “[know] what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”
And so we see that it matters who belongs to Christ. Only those who are in him, who are indwelt by his Spirit, will be raised to newness of life. So the obvious question is: Do you belong to Christ? This is infinitely more important than whether or not you will dodge the Corona virus. The Corona virus can at most kill the body. God can destroy both body and soul in hell (Mt. 10:28). The only way to escape the coming wrath is to find refuge in Christ. And the only way you do that is not by making yourself better but by entrusting yourself to him, by believing on him, and embracing him as your Lord and Savior. If you have not done so, may you do so this very hour.