How Life in the Spirit is Possible – Rom. 8:2-4

You might say that Romans 8 is an exposition upon the work of the Holy Spirit.  Prior to this chapter, the Spirit has only been mentioned three or four times; in this chapter alone, he is mentioned at least 20 times.  What is the difference?  The difference is the difference between what might be called the accomplishment of redemption and the application of redemption.  Christ accomplished redemption for us by his substitutionary life and death – he “obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12, KJV).  But this redemption must be applied.  He must not only purchase our freedom from bondage to sin; he must also bring us out of the slavery itself.  This is the work of the Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:9) precisely because he effectually applies the work of Christ to his elect.

In this chapter, the apostle will be unfolding the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.  But first, he makes the connection between the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit; this is what he does in verses 2-4.  In doing so, he is tying together the previous theme of union with Christ to its outworking in Spirit-filled obedience.  The apostle has already extensively argued that we are saved only by virtue of union with Christ in his life and death.  He is the Second Adam through whom we are saved from the devastations of the First Adam.  He is the one who gives us righteousness when we are unrighteous, who brings deliverance from condemnation when we are condemned, and who gives life when we were dead.  The basis of this is of course his work on the cross.  But the way he actualizes these realities in our lives is through the work of the Spirit.  So it must be that the work of the Spirit was purchased for us on the cross.  And that is precisely what the apostle tells us in these verses.

However, he is not only tying together the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit, he is also showing that justification, which was the theme of chapters 1-5, and with which he begins this chapter, is tied to together with sanctification, which was the theme of chapters 6 and 7.  How are they tied together?  As fruit is to the tree; sanctification is the evidence of our justification.  That is the import of the word for at the beginning of verse 2.  How do we know that we are no longer under condemnation?  We know it when the Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death.

Thus, in verse 2, the apostle states that, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  To understand what the apostle means by “the law of the Spirt,” we must go back to chapter 7, in particular to verses 22-23: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”  Here Paul speaks of two different laws: one is the law of God, in which he delights, and the other is the law of sin that dwells in his members.  Some have equated the law of sin with the law of God, in the sense that the law of God provokes sin.  But the apostle distinguishes between the two.  This law of sin is not the law of God; rather it is the power of indwelling sin (note in verse 17, he simply calls it the “sin that dwells within me”).  It is the same “law of sin and death” that Paul refers to in 8:2.  Therefore, we must understand “law of the Spirit” in a way that is commensurate with “the law of sin.”  Since “law of sin” refers to the power of sin within the heart and mind and will of man, the “law of the Spirit” must refer to the power of the Spirit working in our hearts and minds and wills.

Paul goes on to define this law of the Spirit in two ways.  First, it is the law of the Spirit of life.  For the law of sin is also the law of sin and death.  Just as the wages of sin is death, the Spirit brings life.  He brings new life that is also eternal life.  And it is the law of the Spirit of life “in Christ Jesus.”  Now the ESV has “in Christ Jesus” modifying “set you free,” but I agree with the KJV, which puts it as modifying “the law of the Spirit of life,” which seems to agree more closely with the Greek text (though I can tell no difference in the resulting meaning).  The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and it is only “in Christ Jesus” that the Spirit works to set us free.  In other words, it is only in union with Christ that the Spirit gives us this life that sets us free from the law of sin and death.

What has the Spirit done?  He has “set you free . . . from the law of sin and death.”  He has set us free from the power of sin within.  It is this idea that I want to come back to and try to unpack.  This, I think, is at the heart of verses 2-4.  But before I do so, I want you to see how verses 3 and 4 support the claims of verse 2.

First, look at verse 3.  Here, Paul is cementing the idea that the work of the Spirit in us is only possible because of the work of Christ for us: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh….”  The “law” in this verse almost certainly means the Law of Moses.  Again, chapter 7 helps us out here.  In that chapter, he had been arguing for the impotence of the law to sanctify.  The law of God cannot sanctify; it can only increase our bondage to sin.  Paul sums up the reason why in the words “weakened by the flesh.”  In other words, the problem is not with God’s law; the problem is our “flesh.”  Flesh is not a reference to our bodies.  It is a reference to our sinful nature.  This is what explains the powerlessness of the law.  Holy as it is, and reasonable as it is, it ought to move every being with any degree of moral consciousness and reason to obedience.  Instead, it only produces sin and death.  Why?  Because apart from the work of the Spirit in us, the law of God is not met with reason and goodness in us but with rebellion and sin.  We are not blank slates and our will is not in neutral.  We are rebels with a cause, and that cause is our own autonomy and self-sovereignty.

I cannot emphasize this enough.  God’s law is perfect.  It is reasonable.  It is good.  It is holy (cf. 7:12).  The fault is not in God’s law.  So you would think that giving someone the law would bring about reason, and goodness, and holiness.  That is not what happens.  The opposite happens.  The bottom line is that people don’t just need to be educated.  They don’t just need the right argument or the right sermon to fall in line.  Left to ourselves, flesh will inevitably win the day.  We don’t need someone to merely preach the law to us; we need someone to write God’s law in us.

The problem is that we can’t do that because we won’t do that.  Flesh determines our desires, and those desires are hostile to God (cf. 8:7).  It’s stupid to think that we are going to go against our most fundamental desires.  We need our desires to be changed, and that is a work that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

But this is what God has set out to do through Christ.  The Father sent his own Son to condemn sin in the flesh.  He suffered the punishment we deserved on the cross so that not only would our sins be forgiven, but also so that the power of sin in us would be broken.  He didn’t just come to condemn sin in the sense of speaking against it.  The law could do that just fine.  Rather, he came to condemn sin in the sense of breaking its power over us in terms of its guilt and bondage.  He did this “for us” in our place and as our substitute as a sin offering on the cross, because he came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.”  He came as a perfect man, yet without sin (thus the word “likeness”).  He came as a true man, suffering all the effects of sin in terms of its toll on the body and soul.  He suffered and grieved and wept and hungered and thirsted; in short, he was humiliated in ways that we cannot even imagine – and yet without sin.  And so he was the perfect sacrifice for us – he was human so that he could bear the guilt of human sin; and he was God, as the Son of the Father, so that he could bear the weight of divine wrath.

Behold the work of the Trinity in harmony: the Father planning the work of redemption and sending his own Son (who was not sent to become the Son, but who was sent as the eternal Son), the Son coming and accomplishing redemption, condemning sin on the cross, and the Spirit applying the work of Christ to us in the new birth.

In verse 4, the apostle state that the effect of sin being condemned in the flesh is that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  What the law could not do, God did.  He sent his Son and condemned sin in the flesh.  As a result, he sends his Spirit into our hearts so that whereas we were once hostile to God’s law, now we love it and want to keep it.  This is a New Covenant blessing purchased for us at the cost of the life of the Son of God (cf. Heb. 8:9-12).  

Note, by the way, that we are not redeemed to be free from the law in every sense.  For Paul says that one of the benefits of our redemption is having the righteous requirement of the law fulfilled in us.  This means Spirit-filled obedience to God’s commands in Scripture.  This is not legalism; this is what it means to be saved.  Now, are we free from the law in terms of its condemnation?  Yes.  Are we free from the law in terms of having to fulfill its conditions perfectly?  Yes.  Are we free from the law in terms of the rituals and ceremonial observances of the Mosaic Law?  Yes.  But freedom from the law does not mean freedom from obedience: on the contrary, such freedom grounds our obedience (cf. Rom. 6:14). 

Paul goes on to spell out further what this means: “who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”[1]  Spirit-filled obedience does not mean going based on what feels good at the moment.  It means shaping one’s life to the contours of God’s word through the enablement of the Holy Spirit.  Don’t fall prey to thinking that if something feels right, it must be right.  Rather, place your desires at the altar of God’s word and let God’s word shape your desires.

Now, let’s come back to the main point in verse 2, the point that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death.  What does that mean for us?  Let me suggest it means at least three things.

It means that we are defined by the Spirit, not the flesh.

The fact that Paul describes the Spirit in terms of a law within us means that he is talking about a new power within that overcomes the power of indwelling sin, or the power of the flesh.  Paul is not talking about the Spirit coming into our hearts just to recede into the background and leaving the flesh to keep running things.  The Spirit makes us free from the law of sin and death, which means that the Spirit overcomes the mindset of the flesh.  We are no longer defined by the flesh, we are now defined by the Spirit of God who works in us to conform us more and more to the image of Christ.

Now this does not mean that we are delivered from the presence of sin.  This is one of the inferences of Rom. 7:14-25.  The difference between pre and post-conversion is not that we no longer sin but that we now have the capacity to fight sin and please God.  

Nor is this merely an external reformation that is being described here.  It involves a change of heart.  As we shall see, this is especially seen in verses 5-8.  There we are told that those who are in the Spirit and not in the flesh set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  The word that is used there (to set one’s mind on) means “to care for, to set your mind upon, to be concerned about.”  Our purposes and priorities have changed.  Our affections have changed.  We love what we used to hate and hate what we used to love.  We now delight in God’s law (cf. 7:22) whereas before we were hostile towards it (cf. 8:7).  The inevitable result is that our lives are now fundamentally different.  The old has passed and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).  

There are some Christian theologians who believe that the new birth doesn’t really change a person in terms of their desires and purposes and loves.  Of course they believe that when a person believes in Christ he is forgiven and given eternal life.  But there is this belief, and it is a dangerous belief, that grace can and does often leave people in bondage to their sins.  According to the apostle in this text, that is just rubbish.  How could someone be free from the law of sin and death and yet go on living in their sins?  Or, as the apostle put it in Rom. 6:1, how shall we, who died to sin, live any longer in sin?

It means that we are empowered by the Spirit, not left to our own resources.

It means that we have great encouragement in our fight against sin.  See how God is on our side in the process of sanctification.  He sent his Son to die for our sins (3).  The law could not justify us or sanctify us.  But Christ is the source of both.  Think about it: the Son of God has come to seek and so save that which was lost.  And are we to imagine even for a moment that he is as impotent as the law?  Let us perish the thought!  We have mighty help in our Savior.  Let us never think that our sins are greater than he.  Let us instead bring our burden of sin to Christ and he will rid you of it.  Let him “be of sin the double cure, save from wrath, and make me pure.”[2]

But not only that, he sends his Spirit to work in our hearts (2, 4).  Who is this Spirit?  Is he not the “Spirit of holiness” who raised Christ from the dead? (cf. 1:4; 8:11).  He is the Spirit of life because he brings life, and he brings life to those who were once dead, both spiritually and physically.  I cannot think of a power in the universe more potent than that!  God is therefore for us and in us to save us from our sin in its guilt and corruption.  

We need to often be reminded of that which Paul reminded the Ephesian saints: “What is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his might power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19-20).  We don’t need to be told that we are powerful.  That’s the baloney that the world wants you to believe.  Because you are not powerful.  You are dead apart from Christ.  However, every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of life and power.  We have no reason to be afraid or to be in despair or to be hopeless.  God is for you in the person and power of the Son and in the person and power of the Spirit.

We also not only need to be reminded of this when faced with our own weakness.  We also need to be reminded of it when faced with the sins and failures of those we love.  Sin can be devastating.  And its devastation can sometimes cause us to forget that God is greater than our sin or the sins of our friends or family.  We need to learn not only to trust in the Lord for the needs of our own souls; we also need to trust in the Lord for the soul-needs of our neighbors.  And this means that the very best thing we can do for others is not to point them to a strategy to fight this or that particular sin (though I’m not suggesting we should not do that); the best thing we can do for anyone is to point them to the cross.  Because ultimately that is where sin is dealt with most fully.

Finally, it means that we are enriched by the Spirit, so that we live for others and not ourselves.

We are set free from the law of sin and death so that the law might be fulfilled in us.  But what does that mean?  I said before that it means Spirit-empowered obedience to the commands of Scripture.  But there is another way of summarizing it.  It means that we are set free from loving ourselves exclusively so that we can truly love others.  

This is how Jesus exposited the law in Mt. 22:37-40.  There he was asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  He responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  

Now that does not just mean feel good about God and your fellow man.  We define love especially in light of what Christ has done for us.  And that means being willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  It means being willing to bear each other’s burdens, which Paul calls the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), no doubt in reference to texts like Mt. 22:37-40.  And thus our Lord told his disciples shortly before he left them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

We need this today of all days, because we live in a self-consumed society.  I know that the 20th century has been called “the century of the self,” but I don’t think our current century is shaping up to be any better.  And if anything the technologies of our day are only feeding this obsession with the self.  This has led, if anything, to an increasingly fractured society, where everyone is pursuing their own “rights” at the expense of others.

Thus to live in love is to live against the prevailing current of society.  For to love is to be a servant (cf. Gal. 5:13; Heb. 6:10; Mt. 20:28).  It is to regard others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:1-7).  

Now I am not saying that this is always easy.  It can in fact be very hard sometimes.  So how do you make the connection between the exhortation to love in the Bible and the application of love in the life?  You do so by the Spirit, who produces in us the fruit of love (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).  We become the kind of tree that weathers the storms and keeps producing the fruit of the Spirit even when we are being beaten down by the trials of life and the discouragements of other people by being filled with the Spirit.  Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world (1 Jn. 4:4).

This is so important.  Theology is imperative, but the church loses its witness if it does not love.  As a matter of fact, theology should fuel love.  As the apostle John put it, “If God so loved us [and what theology there is in those five words!], we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).  I heard a missionary once say that when he went to China, where marriages are of convenience, the sight of Christian couples loving each other always attracts positive attention.  Let our love as Christians make a way for the gospel in the hearts of our neighbors.  

Let me end with this consideration: why is all this so important?  Why is it so important to be freed from the law of sin and death?  Because it is not just the law of sin – it is the law of sin and death, not just temporal death, but eternal death (cf. Rom. 6:23).  If I am not freed from this death, every other type of freedom is only like a last meal for a man on death row.  Let us therefore run to Christ, in whom true freedom is to be found, who gives us the Spirit and frees us from the law of sin and death.

[1] These words are also in the KJV at the end of verse 1.  I don’t wish in this place to try to determine whether they should be there or not, but I do want to point out that their undisputed inclusion at the end of verse 4 no matter what text you are using shows that their absence in verse 1 is not the result of some heretical conspiracy to distort Scripture.  For if that were the case, they would have almost certainly also deleted the words at the end of verse 4.  They would have had to be pretty dumb heretics otherwise.
[2] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages.”


Popular Posts